INDIANAPOLIS – In moments of chaos, Lance Stephenson can still unravel and revert himself into instability, unleashing split-second immaturities of his youth. Indiana isn’t afforded Stephenson behaving like every other 23-year-old, nor afforded his lapses in judgment. So, yes, Stephenson had issued a challenge on the eve of this Eastern Conference final series, a calculated approach to work Dwyane Wade, work his legs to swell on the court.
This wasn’t some cocky takedown of one of the NBA’s greatest ever shooting guards, but Stephenson remembered how the Miami Heat made runs at him last season, how they trash talked him in South Beach and tried rattling him. He remembered getting himself ejected two months ago here against Miami, and the regret with it. “Lance has so much respect for Wade, LeBron [James] and all those guys,” said one source with knowledge of Stephenson’s mindset, “but he’s not scared of anybody.”
The Pacers have long talked a boisterous game and strutted scintillating confidence, and this starting five established precision in the seven-game run of the Heat a season ago. Then somehow, Roy Hibbert went dormant, the backcourt lacked cohesion and Paul George needed to carry the offensive and defensive burden with increased frequency.
Never did Indiana’s starting five replicate the same refinement of chemistry in this postseason – never did they produce 94 points together until Sunday’s 107-96 win over the Heat.
“For all of your Pacers starters …” the public address announcer boomed inside the Fieldhouse in the closing minute, Frank Vogel removing his starting lineup to an ovation it hadn’t received in so long. When one starter enters an ineffective state, it fluctuates the rhythm of them all. One game into these conference finals, and the five starters suddenly came together and clicked with the veracity missing throughout the playoffs.
Stephenson commanded every facet of Game 1, controlling the pace, the floor and his own temperament. He totaled 17 points, eight assists and four rebounds, and everyone had come to him seeking a backtrack of his stance on Wade. Soon, Stephenson smiled when reminded of his comments, laughed and pointed to the stat sheet.
“[Wade] had 27 tonight ... I mean, I got to slow him down,” Stephenson told RealGM.
Fear no one, respect everyone, he says.
“I got to control my attitude sometimes,” Stephenson said. “I was out of control that last time against the Heat. I mean, overhyped. Dwyane Wade’s a great player. I just want to be as aggressive as possible, and make it hard for him every time he gets the ball. I want to make something happen every time the ball finds me.”
The revitalization of the Pacers’ starting five started with the reconfiguration of Hibbert’s mentality. No longer could they expect to survive with worthless efforts, the zero-point, zero-rebound nights. Hibbert had found semblance of his 20-and-10 self in Game 7 of the first round and gradually progressed in the semifinals.
Still, Hibbert had tailspinned late in the series against the Atlanta Hawks, a lifeless performance of four points and two rebounds in a home blowout loss. So David West and Rasual Butler gathered Hibbert alone in a room and probed him to play like a two-time All-Star, to behave like the maximum contract player he is. West is a natural leader, but Butler’s become an unexpected asset inside the locker room and played nine minutes Sunday. Butler was part of the Chicago Bulls group that took a 1-0 series lead on the Heat in the 2011 conference finals; only to lose four straight, learning the instantaneous switch-flip by a championship-caliber team.
Ultimately, the execution of play calls will help decide the series and Indiana has no boundary to turn over the ball more than 12 times. Commit 15 turnovers or more, and the Heat’s pedigree ensures that means game over.
“It’s about executing,” James said on a night only Ray Allen and Chris Andersen joined he and Wade as double-figure scorers, and LeBron understands the level of brilliance he and Wade must display to overcome such disparity in depth.
When the game called for ferocity, Stephenson kept elevating the pace, kept hollering for the ball to push toward these Heat like they did to him a season ago, and maybe he is right about Dwyane Wade. Perhaps he could grow tired of running with this brash, energetic 23-year-old. “At least I did something right in my career,” Wade said, slyly, of Stephenson’s uplifted spirit against him. And now maybe, just maybe, these Eastern Conference finals could right every part of Lance Stephenson’s basketball life.