By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
The guy nicknamed “Born Ready” needs to get ready all over again. Or, sticking with his tattooed terminology, Lance Stephenson needs to be reborn for Game 3 of the Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat Eastern Conference finals Saturday night (8:30 ET, ESPN).
With the series shifting to Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena for the next two in the best-of-seven series, Stephenson faces all the usual adjustments to playing on the road and trying to repeat his clutch performance in Game 2, when he led Indiana with 25 points and carried the Pacers for long stretches. But he’ll have another adjustment to cope with in the person of Heat reserve guard Norris Cole.
Cole was the Heat sub entrusted with pestering Stephenson defensively in the fourth quarter Tuesday and he wasn’t just effective; he was Tony Allen-on-Kevin Durant effective. After Stephenson turned Bankers Life Fieldhouse into his personal playground over the first three quarters, Cole went back into the game and onto Stephenson, a LeBron James suggestion.
It was an idea, triggered by Cole’s work in eight second-quarter minutes, whose time truly had come. Stephenson got knocked out of rhythm, his typically high dribble made vulnerable by the shorter Cole’s low base, grabby hands and foot speed. The Pacers shooting guard’s game turned noticeably passive and he no longer could cover for the misfirings of David West (0-for-4) and Paul George (1-for-2).
“Dribble penetration,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gave as the single biggest challenge posed by Stephenson. “He was putting pressure on the entire defense. Norris is one of our better pick-and-roll defenders.”
Miami has versatility that way. Once Cole demonstrated he was capable of bothering Stephenson, Dwyane Wade and James were able to shift their defensive focus to George and Pacers point guard George Hill, respectively. It wasn’t George’s night anyway – from his 1-of-11 first half to the concussion he suffered midway through the final quarter – and Hill often doesn’t assert himself for long stretches — even when he’s shadowed by a lesser defender.
That freed up the Heat’s Big 2 to score 22 of their team’s 25 points – Cole’s 3-pointer the lone exception – while the Pacers shot 7-of-19 for 20 points.
The onus now is on Stephenson, Indiana coach Frank Vogel and the rest of their crew to adjust to Cole’s new-found role. They need Stephenson’s points and his other stats, but they also need Lance being Lance. He can be a Tasmanian devil on the court, with fits of good and bad, but he has an energy and unbridled nature that gooses Indiana’s otherwise sober, dispassionate lineup of veterans.
Stephenson said after Game 2 that he believes in his teammates and fact is, they believe in him — or at least his abilities — too. None of them has the athleticism or can blow by an opponent or can create their own shot the way Stephenson can. None of them is the powder keg, with sparks flying dangerously close, that Stephenson is.
That, frankly, is what’s going to make his summer roll-out in free agency so tricky. Back when the Pacers were the first-half darlings of the NBA and Stephenson was best known as a snubbed All-Star and Most Improved candidate, the 23 year old figured to cash in big as an unrestricted choice at shooting guard. When Indiana swooned in March and April, however, Stephenson was in the middle of it – Roy Hibbert dropped the “selfish” word in his direction – and looked to be costing himself serious bucks (relatively, since he was making $1 million in 2013-14) .
With his Game 3 performance, which was nearly eclipsed by the outcome, Stephenson again could perk up interest and offers from teams desperate for scoring. If, that is, he’s able to handle this latest wrinkle of Cole as Lance thwarter.
Asked specifically about the job Cole did on him, Stephenson didn’t even acknowledge the Miami backup. “I felt like I was involved,” he said. “I come off the pick-and-roll, I hit D.West, like I normally do. … Just got to keep playing basketball.”
Only for four quarters this time, and sharper, against a Cole-blooded defender. Or whomever Miami throws at him next.