Whoa? No. Pacers need Lance's giddyup
Lance Stephenson's antics riled LeBron James in two previous playoff matchups. (Getty Images)
That word keeps coming up in discussions of Lance Stephenson’s second time around with the Pacers. On one level, it makes perfect sense. He even used the word himself, the first time he was traded after one season in Charlotte. Then came another trade, this time in midseason, from the Clippers to the Grizzlies. And then, despite averaging 14.2 points in his audition, Memphis declined to pick up his contract option.
Then came a truly humbling contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, a one-year deal for the minimum, $1.22 million -- but only $100,000 was guaranteed. This is the franchise, remember, that gave Solomon Hill a $48 million deal. Then he got hurt, tearing a groin muscle, requiring surgery and a lengthy rehab, and the Pelicans opted not to wait, cutting him. Eventually, he resurfaced with the Timberwolves, but at the lowest possible level of NBA existence -- the 10-day contract. He sprained an ankle, but they gave him 10 more days. He re-sprained it, and that was it.
Lance Stephenson, who led the NBA in triple-doubles in 2013-14, very nearly making the All-Star team, a player who felt so confident in his market value he turned down a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers, had fallen all the way to the bottom. In less than three seasons, five teams had given him the boot.
Maybe for some. Not for Stephenson.
Consider his first game after returning to the Pacers, a critical meeting with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Stephenson, the man who created the meme still seen ‘round the world by blowing in LeBron James’ ear during the 2014 playoffs, hopped right back on the horse, starting a running smack-talk dialogue with James. At one point, while the Cavs star was at the free throw line and Stephenson was yapping away, James smiled, shook his head and appeared to say, “C’mon, young fella, get in the game!”
The Pacers lost that game, maybe because Stephenson didn’t play in either overtime period. They haven’t lost since, certainly because Stephenson has played consistently, reminiscently well. Thus, they earned a playoff matchup with those same Cavs, and their fourth postseason shot at James.
And when the series begins Saturday afternoon in Cleveland, however long it lasts, here’s what the Pacers don’t need: anything resembling humility from Stephenson.
“He’s fearless,” said Nate McMillan, “and as I’ve always said, I would much rather say ‘whoa’ to a player than ‘giddyup.’ Lance is a guy that’s going to bring it and you’re going to have to tell him ‘whoa.’ If you have to keep telling players ‘giddyup,’ that’s a problem.”
McMillan grew weary of constantly trying to find ways to get the Pacers to giddyup through the first six months of the season. The team rarely showed any spark, any emotion, any sign of life, and was on the verge of collapse when Larry Bird reached back into the past and signed Stephenson.
Almost instantly, the team was transformed. Stephenson’s energy transcended the court to the locker room, to practice, to the team hotel on the road. All of a sudden, the Pacers ran like McMillan and Bird had hoped they would back in November, averaging 115.5 points and 25.7 assists in those last six games. All of a sudden, Paul George looked like a superstar again, averaging 32.8 points on 55 percent shooting in April.
Even though Stephenson came off the bench, the starting lineup mysteriously found its rhythm, all five players lifting their games. And the second unit became a weapon. It is for those reasons the Pacers believe they have more than a puncher’s chance against the defending champions, who lost their last four games and were 12-15 after the All-Star break.
“I think we have grown and I think the growth, I’m seeing that in the last week or two,” McMillan said. “I think we can say that Lance has had an impact on this team, with how we’ve played. We’ve played some really tough basketball and we had to win out in order to get our position in the playoffs and our guys did that. … I just like the way we’re playing with an edge out there. We’re playing with a sense of urgency that we’ve talked about having all season.”
So why has Stephenson succeeded in Indiana where he failed everywhere else? Having the support of the team president certainly hasn’t hurt. But this is his basketball home, and George -- his 2010 draft classmate -- a surrogate big brother. The Pacers know Stephenson, need Stephenson and thus they welcome him, warts and all.
Here, and only here, Lance can be Lance.
“The thing that works for him here is everywhere he went he wasn’t allowed to be himself. He’s been himself ever since he’s been here and he’s comfortable, we’re all comfortable, with him being him,” George said. “He’s different. He’s the oddball and you need that. You need the guy that’s energetic, who’s live, who’s going to stir the pot. We work very well off one another and I think that’s really what it’s been. He’s bounced around. Not many teams have given him a chance. They think it’s baggage coming with Lance. You’ve got to allow a person to be himself.
“Day one he came here, right away Lance was Lance. He came out, he was aggressive, looking to make plays. Everywhere he went there was a star there that needs the ball, that’s demanding of the ball and he couldn’t find his way. Here, we need him to have the ball and he’s comfortable, we’re comfortable with him having that ball and he makes the right plays.”
Stephenson averaged just under 22 minutes, 7.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds with the Pacers, which is nice, but it’s just part of the picture. Aside from his conversation with James, he also managed to anger the entire nation of Canada by making an unnecessary layup in the closing seconds of an April 4 victory, danced downcourt after making a buzzer-beating shot in Orlando, and let loose a primal scream and strong-man pose after a remarkable tip-in against the Hawks.
That’s the kind of behavior that, over time, can become wearisome and counterproductive. But at this particular moment in time, it’s exactly what the Pacers need. They know Stephenson is going to be their X-factor, and sometimes, it’ll work against them. A few years ago, we’d all watch his antics and wonder “why?” Now, it has become “why not?”
McMillan, as straight-laced and old-school as they came as a player, has no intention of trying to reign in Stephenson. No need to start saying “whoa” now.
“I think he’s going to play a big part in us being able to match up with them, handling the ball, making decisions,” the coach said. “He’s probably going to be one of the guys on LeBron and he’s going to have to be solid.”
Stephenson wasn’t even playing during the 2012 playoffs, when he flashed the choke sign at James. Two years later, he was part of the team’s core when he got into a fight with teammate Evan Turner during practice, then drew the ire of the Heat for his flopping and ear-blowing in the conference finals.
This time around, they might not welcome a reprise of the antics, but the Pacers desperately need a healthy dose of Stephenson’s swagger.
“I think as long as he’s playing within himself and he’s not being distracted by that,” said McMillan, “a lot of guys use that to get going and they’re capable of playing that way and sometimes it bothers the opponent.”
Giddyup and go.