- Knicks vs. Pacers: Series Hub
INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Lance Stephenson was comic relief and the Indiana Pacers’ resident knucklehead. Twelve months later, he is as serious as a flagrant foul and the single biggest reason the Pacers eliminated the New York Knicks in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Last May, Stephenson was the Indiana deep reserve, all raw talent and immaturity, who got caught by the cameras making a choke sign when LeBron James missed free throws in Game 3 of the teams’ playoff series. James ignored him, in the moment and when asked about him later. But a couple of his Miami teammates weren’t so detached; Juwan Howard got into a verbal confrontation with Stephenson before Game 4 and backup big Dexter Pittman seemed to be on the floor late in Game 5 for the express purpose of flattening him (Pittman winked to the Heat bench after the hit across the young Pacers guard’s throat).
Now, it’s Stephenson doing the flattening. Not quite all growed up but making a mad dash in that direction, the 6-foot-5 kid from Brooklyn – from the same Lincoln High that produced the likes of Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair – did New York’s NBA team wrong. He grabbed the game at both ends – grabbed it by the throat, one might say – and scored nine points in the first quarter to ignite Indiana in a game it couldn’t squander, then nine more (in not quite seven minutes) in the fourth when it mattered most.
His 25 were a career playoff high but then, just about everything Stephenson does this postseason is a career high, given how unused he was previously. Twice in the first half, Stephenson snagged rebounds and raced downcourt, going end to end through New York’s defense for buckets.
In the fourth, he picked off a pass by Carmelo Anthony and finished with a three-point play that broke a 92-92 tie. Next time down, he drew Tyson Chandler‘s sixth personal foul and hit two free throws. After an Anthony jumper made it 99-94, Stephenson backed his way first through J.R. Smith, then through Anthony for another layup. It wasn’t over, except that it was.
“Unbelievable,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s got no playoff experience whatsoever, but he’s got some of the best basketball instincts I’ve ever been around. There’s an old phrase – he’s a gamer.
“He’s not always going to look good. He’s not always going to be in the right spots defensively. … But you put him in a situation like this – Game 6, closeout game – the kid’s got a lot of guts and great basketball instincts.”
Said New York’s Iman Shumpert, Anthony’s only reliable sidekick (19 points) as their season ended: “You never want anybody else to be more aggressive than you.”
Stephenson, obviously, wasn’t alone. Heck, he wasn’t even alone in talking about the performance – Indiana delivered all five starters to the postgame podium, rare and symbolic in a couple of ways. Few teams thrive with their starting five the way the Pacers do and scrape when the subs take the floor. And few teams (Denver is another) go ensemble to the degree these guys do. In this six-game series, for instance, each of the starters led his club in scoring at least once.
It’s never just scoring with these guys. Paul George pestered Anthony all night – not entirely successfully, given the Knicks scorer’s 39 points and 15-for-29 shooting – but George got 23 back at the other end and did it all with only three fouls. Roy Hibbert scored 21 mostly finesse points but went grimier with 12 rebounds and five blocks, meeting Anthony at the rim on a dramatic turnaround late that could have put the Knicks up four.
Forward David West had a seemingly ordinary night yet found George and Stephenson with slick interior passes on smart cuts for layups, each exploiting a Smith snooze. Then there was George Hill, the point guard who came back in 48 hours from a concussion diagnosis. Hill aced the NBA’s protocol tests to get cleared to start, shot cockeyed for much of the night, but logged 42 minutes and was 7-for-7 from the line, including four to ice it late.
And still, Stephenson was the first among equals in this one. The Knicks played hard, particularly in the third quarter when Shumpert nailed three 3-pointers in a streak of four that erased a 12-point Pacers lead. No one can quibble with Anthony’s drive or concentration to get his team and the series back to Madison Square Garden for one more shot.
But while the Knicks played with elimination hanging over their heads, Stephenson played with humiliation gnawing at him from his Game 5 outing (1-for-7, four points and a low impact game on the court New York kids dream about). Stephenson couldn’t even muster a nightmare afterward. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t wait for this game.”
Vogel, the coaches and his teammates tried to snap him out of it in real time Thursday, then talked with him some more Friday and Saturday. By tipoff, he was in control, yet unleashed.
“That sort of came out of nowhere,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
Said West: “All year, when he plays well, we win. We understand he’s one of our main cogs in terms of improvement this team has made. When he’s aggressive as he was in the beginning of the game – most nights he’s bigger than the other ’2′ guards, physically stronger, especially this series – and he took advantage from start to finish.”
For two years, the Pacers worked with Stephenson and trusted in Larry Bird, the former Pacers exec who drafted him at No. 40 in 2010 and had his back as an occasionally troubled but supremely gifted player. In 2012-13 Stephenson’s emergence as the starting shooting guard eased Indiana’s loss of veteran forward Danny Granger (knee surgery) essentially for the season and fueled George’s Most Improved Player season at small forward.
Now he and the Pacers are bound for a best-of-seven rematch with Miami. If he keeps his cool, and the defending champions aren’t fully prepared for his transformation from the punk they smacked and laughed at last year, just who knocks down whom might be very much in play.