INDIANAPOLIS – Lance Stephenson slammed in a dunk late in the Indiana Pacers’ 97-80 victory over the Chicago Bulls, landed in the paint below and threw back his head, baying at the moon or just going primal. It was his 17th shot and his fifth basket, a ratio that rattled around his head all night.
But never quite rattled him.
“Aw, man, I let out so much anger when I did that dunk,” Stephenson said later, the 5-0 Pacers’ status secure as the NBA’s last remaining unbeaten team. “I’m just happy I stuck with it … I watched film all summer and I told myself I was going to be aggressive, and ‘If I ever have an off day, I’m going to keep pushing, keep shooting.'”
Stephenson, Indiana’s irrepressible shooting guard, missed his first seven shots Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, going 0-for-the-second-quarter. He was 1-of-11 until he drained a 3-pointer from the right side with 6:58 left to put the Pacers up 70-69. At 5:16, he hit from four feet outside the arc to make it 77-69. He scored four more points after that, among his 12 in the fourth quarter, but Stephenson also missed a layup and a tip before that emphatic, cathartic dunk.
There were nights in the past when he would have gone off the rails. But this wasn’t one of those. There might be few this season.
“He should be in the conversations of Most Improved this year,” said Paul George, the Pacers’ All-Star wing who won that honor last season. “He’s really stepped up. He had the reputation of being an ‘and-1’ type of player. Crowd-pleaser, putting-on-a-show type of guy. But now he’s really being a professional. He’s ready when the ball is swung to him to shoot. He’s coming off pin-downs ready to shoot, ready to make plays.
“It’s a credit to him how much he’s worked…I stayed in his head and really told him, ‘You’ve got to move on to the next play. You can’t let one play drag you down. This is too special of a team.’ And we need him.”
The Pacers have him, just one of many differences in their club since the Bulls were the class of the Central Division. A lot of people in and around Chicago write off the 2012-13 season because of Derrick Rose‘s absence and, with the Bulls stepping on the floor Wednesday the healthiest they’ve been in years, some might expect – they might expect – that the familiar pecking order in the Central and in the East chasing Miami might snap back the way it was.
The Pacers see it differently. They stepped in for the Rose-less Bulls last season. They won the division. They were the ones, too, who pressed the Heat to seven games before relinquishing in the East.
So while November is too early for serious statement games, there was a little something-something involved that buoyed Indiana on the tail end of its back-to-back, after winning at Detroit Tuesday.
Rose scored seven of Chicago’s first nine points but just 10 of their final 71, having to cope with stifling traps and double-teams and at times the length and wingspan of George. By holding the Bulls to 80 points on 35.6 percent shooting, the Pacers tightened their defensive screws to 84.4 points allowed and a 37.5 percent defensive field-goal percentage. They have won three straight at home against the Bulls and four of the past five meetings overall.
“We want to step away from that shadow as the ‘little brothers’ of this division,” George told NBA.com. “Their success is the Michael Jordan era. This is a new age, this is a new team. It’s ours till they take it.”
Edgy? Good, that’s what the Pacers are going for. It’s why their record – they’re 5-0 for the first time as an NBA franchise, their only previous taste coming in the ABA in 1971-72 – matters, even though the season is 10 days old.
“5-0, that’s a good start. But how we’re playing is even more encouraging,” coach Frank Vogel said. “I think we have a championship-level defense. And we’ve got enough offensive pieces to put it all together on the offensive end. So it will be an exciting year.”
Some might see it as a grueling year, slogging through seven or eight months all for the chance to win one more game. Or, OK, five more games.
But the Pacers have made it clear that the process has value. All 82 games have value. Injured vet Danny Granger (calf) presumably will take his place in their deeper rotation. The overhauled bench will gel (it’s already an upgrade). George Hill‘s sore left hip will improve, and so on.
Throughout, though, Indiana will have its eyes on one specific prize.
“We’ve talked about competing for the ‘1’ seed from opening night,” forward David West said. “We feel like that’s a realistic goal. Obviously we understand there are some tough teams out there, some teams got better. Obviously Miami’s the defending champs. But we trust who we are. We believe in who we are.
“We’re working toward that. That’s our focus. I remember saying that after Game 7 last year, ‘It’s a totally different series if we’re on our home court.'”
Said George: “We know how big the No. 1 seed is. Come one game away and play Game 7 on the opponents’ floor, where they’re getting all the energy. And they just came out and played huge on their floor. That’s in the back of our minds and something that’s motivating us to come out and keep playing well.”
Flawlessly, unblemished, through five so far.