The Lance Stephenson Game


Game 6 was the best game of Lance Stephenson’s career. But it wasn’t “The Lance Stephenson Game” because he completely took over the game and/or single handily won it (though you can make the case that he was the biggest factor for the Pacers).

No, Game 6 was “The Lance Stephenson Game” for a much better reason. In a few years from now we’re gonna look back on Game 6 and say to ourselves “Damn, this is the game Lance Stephenson finally broke out, this was the game where Lance showed the world what he’s capable of.”

It’s funny. It’s hard to explain how high Lance’s ceiling is really, even to Pacers fans but specifically to non-Pacers fans. With everyone getting caught up in the way Paul George has played this season, a lot of people (myself included) had forgotten about Lance (who, to be honest, was in reality the Pacers’ most improved player this season). After Game 1, in which Lance quietly had a big game, he was back in my sight. I’ve had a few people who were getting to watch the Pacers for the first time say to me “Man, that Lance guy looks out of control,” etc…

But no, that’s the thing. He doesn’t look out of control to me, I’ve watched him this season. I can tell and appreciate the calmness he has attained while making aggressive moves to the basket. “He had a hell of game,” said Mike Woodson when asked about Lance after the game, “that somewhat came out of nowhere.”

I didn’t think it came out of nowhere. I don’t know if other Pacers fans can back me up on this, but somewhere in the back of my head I knew Lance could have a breakout game at any moment.

Did I think it would be this soon?

No. But it was.

Perhaps Frank Vogel explained it best when he was asked about how big Stephenson has been so far during the playoffs. “It’s unbelievable,” said Vogel. “It’s believable but unbelievable. He’s got no playoff experience whatsoever, but he’s got some of the best basketball instincts I’ve ever been around.”

That probably explains it best. To people who watch him for the first time, he might seem like an OK player but nothing magnificent  After watching him throughout the season, however, Vogel has gotten to know him better than anyone, and you can tell that he sees something truly special in him.

I’ll probably sound crazy saying this (in fact I myself will probably call myself crazy the next time I watch the Pacers), but at times I believe Lance Stephenson’s ceiling is higher than Paul George’s. Yes, higher. Not just as high or almost as high, higher. I can’t explain why I think so but you saw some of it for yourself last night. I mean he looked like a mini LeBron at times on the fast break. Now, add in the fact that he’s only played his first season and that he isn’t quite the shooter that he will be eventually.

You see where I’m coming from?

To think that he fell all the way to the Pacers at pick #40 in the 2010 draft …

His team knows how important he is to them. The stats show it. With Lance on the court during the playoffs the Pacers are +8.4 per 100 possessions; with him off the court the Pacers a -14.0 per 100. Rub your eyes. You might want to read that again. He’s done that practically as a rookie.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this stat is largely the product of the Pacers’ starting lineup being so good; George Hill has a team-high +9.5 on-court rating, and Roy Hibbert and David West’s numbers are nearly as high as Stephenson. Still, Stephenson’s number is second best on the team, a pretty impressive stat for a first-time starter.)

After the game,Vogel was asked if he talked to Lance  after his bad Game 5. “There have been times throughout this year when he hasn’t been assertive, and we’re not very good when he’s not. And when he’s in attack mode like he was tonight,” said Vogel, pausing before adding, “boy, we’re really good”.

The best part about Lance last night (other than that it followed his worst game of the playoffs) was how he handled the two things he’s struggled with the most this season: Free throws and turnovers. In the most important game of his career he shot 7-of-8 from the charity stripe and had no turnovers. And, oh yeah, he outplayed this guy named Melo, who plays for the Knicks, in the 4th quarter.

And it wasn’t even close.

Anthony scored 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting with 3 turnovers, 2 fouls and zero rebounds in the fourth. Stephenson put up 9 points on 3-for-5 with no turnovers, 2 boards and a steal.

Now that the Pacers are done with the Knicks, it’s clear that New York had the best player in Melo but after that the Pacers may have the next best five players. A lot of people doubt Lance (and George Hill) was better than (this hurt version of) Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith but it’s clear now that he is. At least when he plays assertively and up to his capabilities. Really, even when he’s not scoring, he gives you so much more: playmaking, rebounding, defense. (Need I say that J.R. doesn’t?)

And when he is scoring, like last night, it can be beautiful. Those defensive rebounds then darting to the other side for the coast-to-coast finish. That steal and then the and one. The back door cut on a snoozing J.R. Smith. The up and under on Melo. Like I said, beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong. Now that he’s had this game once, it doesn’t mean he’s gonna come out and put up 18-8 every night. But it does mean that we finally got to see what this guy can really do. We’ve seen glimpses of it during the season in small spurts, but now we’ve seen a full game of it. On the biggest stage of his career, we finally saw its full potential.

Lance might be nicknamed “Born Ready,” but he wasn’t.

It took years of growth, but now he has become ready.

So sit back and enjoy the ride.