- Heat vs. Pacers: Series Hub
HANGTIME HEADQUARTERS — Indiana coach Frank Vogel called Lance Stephenson, his team’s raw and inconsistent shooting guard, a “barometer” for how the Pacers are playing on any given night.
“When he’s bad, we typically struggle,” Vogel said after one of Stephenson’s upticks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. “When he’s good, we’re pretty darn good.”
The metaphor suits Stephenson, given his mercurial game and, at times, personality. But through five games of this series, it can’t be limited just to the third-year guy from Brooklyn, N.Y. Point guard George Hill, as low-key as they come and a local kid from Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple High School, has teamed with Stephenson in what has been a “barometer backcourt.”
And the atmospheric pressure definitely is rising as the Pacers and the Miami Heat head toward Game 6 Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. How Hill and Stephenson go has tracked closely with how Indiana has gone.
Consider their combined performances in the Pacers’ two victories: 33.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists, while shooting 47.9 percent (23-for-48).
Now look at how they’ve done in the three defeats: 14.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 26-percent shooting.
During the 2012-13 regular season, as Stephenson established himself as a young but legitimate starter in scorer Danny Granger‘s absence (knee injury), he and Hill on average performed somewhere in between those extremes: 23.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 45.0 percent field-goal shooting.
Even that would have been sufficient in the Pacers’ 90-79 Game 5 loss in Miami. Indiana’s starting front line was formidable – forwards Paul George (27) and David West (17) and center Roy Hibbert (22) combined for 66 points on 26-for-49 shooting. But Hill and Stephenson produced just four points on 0-for-4 shooting with three rebounds, four assists, six turnovers and 10 fouls.
Afterward, Hill looked like a deer in Miami’s headlights and Stephenson’s mood was darkening. Vogel and the Pacers need them at something approaching their winning numbers if they’re even going to push the Heat to a Game 7.
“It’s on me,” Vogel said. “I have to make sure those guys are involved and getting better looks. And if they’re out of synch, we’re going to struggle.”
The primary reasons for the Hill-Stephenson struggles was foul trouble. Stephenson barely broke a sweat before picking up two fouls in the game’s first 2:27. He eventually fouled out and logged only 28:09.
“I wasn’t really in the game, so we couldn’t be the team that we are,” Stephenson said, his confidence intact even if his focus was not.
Hill got in a funk after notching his third and fourth fouls in a span of 16 seconds early in the second half. Not coincidentally, that’s when the floor dropped out for the Pacers – they shot just 3-for-14 as a team and scored 13 points. Hill and Stephenson weren’t offering much offense of their own and weren’t initiating it for teammates either.
Meanwhile, the backup backcourt of D.J. Augustin and Sam Young was of little service. Those two combined for two points on 1-for-3 shooting with one rebound, no assists and three turnovers in 35 minutes.
Hill usually is a consistent player but he has had “handle” problems for the Pacers in this series and has made some poor decisions. He isn’t winning his matchup with Mario Chalmers that many figured would tilt his way. Also, it’s worth noting that he is only a couple of weeks removed from a concussion diagnosis from a blow he suffered against New York in the conference semis. After missing Game 5, he passed the league’s protocols for returning to action.
With Stephenson, it might be a different head situation entirely. He and LeBron James went at verbally it in Game 5 with some trash talk that rarely riles either man. But you’d never know if Stephenson stepped out of the moment for an instant and realized just whom he was jawing with.
“As a competitor you love challenges, and Lance is one of those guys who likes to talk some,” James said. “And I’m for it, too.”
Sometimes it is self-motivating, sometimes it can be distracting. Appeared Thursday to be more of the latter, a good indicator for the defending champs. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Stephenson: “He’s one of those out-of-the-box players that he can break your defense down, he can do it at the end of the shot clock, he can do it in transition, he can do it some ways that aren’t necessarily scripted.”
As for the Pacers up front, they know how important their guards are. Hibbert often has to “get his” off the glass himself because of Indiana’s struggles with entry passes. So getting only six boards instead of Game 4’s 12, and two on the offensive glass versus six, contributed to the problem as well.
Hibbert and George focused more on the young shooting guard after the setback.
“He’s going to have to accept that challenge right there,” Hibbert said. “It goes for everybody. … Lance is going to have to accept that challenge to go out there and play defense on the top player, the best player in the NBA, the MVP. Each one of us has to hold ourselves accountable.”
That goes double for the barometer backcourt, considering the storm that might be brewing.