The Subtle Ways Lance Stephenson Lifts the Pacers


(Opening spread from a reacent Slam magazine feature on Stephenson that you should read.)

Lance Stephenson came into this league as a physical specimen with loads of potential. For two years, that’s all he was: a physical specimen who lacked maturity, control and defensive determination.

Over the past season we have seen him grow before our very eyes.

Until this year, every time Lance made a good play, I used to be worried  that he would get over confident and turn the ball over on the next possession. Now I want him to touch the ball on every possession, and at times I even think the Pacers should try running the offense through him.

As the regular season wore on, Stephenson was given more playing time and asked to take on a larger role. At some point he realized how much he actually meant to this team and fully bought into it. The further we got into the season, the more Lance figured out ways he could help this team. A player who thrived in high school by making highlight plays quickly became determined to help his team by making unflashy plays.

“It’s coming around that he knows we need him,” said Paul George after Indiana’s Game 1 win over New York. “We need him to play a huge role.”

Lance has always been a player capable of making jaw-dropping passes but at times has struggled at finding the “right” or “simple” pass.

On this play, Lance is given the ball to pass to Paul George in the post. Lance determines that passing to Paul will be ineffective so he looks to pass it back to the point guard, George Hill. However, Pablo Prigioni is blanketing Hill, so Lance quickly looks for his next option, which is Roy Hibbert. Roy quickly hands it off to Hill who ends up getting it inside to West for an easy layup. Lance doesn’t get an assist for this; heck, he doesn’t even get a hockey assist. But this is a play on which, earlier this year, he likely would have tried to force the ball to one of the Georges.

Of course, he’s still more than willing to make the flashy play when he get’s the chance:

Here he catches Raymond Felton ball-watching on the rebound and cuts down low for the tomahawk jam.

When I first saw Lance Stephenson play, he seemed extremely out of control. He just seemed careless with ball and always attempting to beat his man off the dribble. Now, while he still looks like Taz to first-time onlookers, those who’ve grown used to watching him play are able to appreciate how calm he looks.

Notice on these three plays how he’s able to draw defenders by making moves to the basket that free up open teammates:

Here, Lance makes a move to the basket that causes a series of rotations by the Knicks and ultimately leads to an open DJ Augustin three.

Tyson Chandler is aware of Lance’s open-court ability and willingness to attack in transition, so he rushes to get back to defend the paint. This leaves Roy Hibbert open from mid range. The big fella catches a no-look pass from Lance and drains it.

Watch Lance draw Felton in and pass to the guy who was 3-for-3 from downtown at that point in the game. Augustin pump fakes, gets Felton in the air and ends up getting an easy layup.

Throughout, Lance just looks so calm. It’s crazy.

Paul George appreciates the growth he has seen in Stephenson this year.

“He’s understanding when to be aggressive, where to attack, when to find guys,” said George. “He’s just being much more poised. He’s always been a guy who obviously can put points on the board and create. But now he’s just slowing down and letting everything come to him. ”

And when JR Smith decide to flop, leaving Lance with an open lane to the basket, he can make tough layups against the former defensive player of the year.

Obviously the most notable thing about Lance’s play of late has been his rebounding.

In the regular season, he averaged just 3.3 boards per game. He only had two double-digit rebound games all year.

In the playoffs, however, he’s averaging 8.7 and has three straight double-digit rebound games. As a shooting guard.

“The last three playoff games, he’s been a different player,” said Paul George. “The beginning of the year, Lance was a guy who would leak out when [opponents] were shooting shots. Now he’s staying in. And that’s what we’re going to need. We’re going to need to win that rebounding battle. You can’t give guys like Carmelo second opportunities to make shots. We’re a different team when he’s playing at that level.”

A lot of the more athletic players in the league, such as Blake Griffin, have drawn criticism for not using their athleticism to rebound. Lance has great athleticism and has used it these past few games.

If he can keep it up that’ll be even more impressive.

Perhaps the most impressive sequence of Game 1 came nearly all from Lance Stephenson:

First, pause the video when the ball leaves Kidd’s hands. Man, that recovery time. Then, once again, Stephenson makes a move to the basket that draws in the defender (Kidd) before passing to Paul George. When George’s miss bounces off the front of the rim right above Lance, he uses his pogostick to grab the rebound. Within a second of landing, he finds DJ Augustin open in the corner. To top it all off he blocks out Felton and Martin from recovering to DJ in time.

Lance’s athleticism and versatility is also a key factor in Vogel being able to use his “non-Gerald Green” lineups. When Paul George sits, Lance has been able to play at the small forward instead of Green and has still been able to be effective.

Roy Hibbert and Paul George were the players who gained the national media spotlight after their Game 1 performances and deservedly so. But just know this: Even if it’s not showing up on the stat sheets, Lance has been able to quietly make a big impact for this team. It’s not that often when you see a high school star like Stephenson start to sacrifice for his team in the unnoticeable ways.

It’s been extremely fun and admirable to watch.