6 Plays from Game 4 of the ECF That Prove Lance Stephenson's X-Factor Status

Andy Wittry@@AndyWittryCorrespondent IMay 29, 2013

6 Plays from Game 4 of the ECF That Prove Lance Stephenson's X-Factor Status

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    If the 2013 NBA playoffs have taught me anything, it's that the Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson is one of the most exciting, yet maddening, professional basketball players to watch.

    A one-on-three fast break? Stephenson is up for the challenge.

    Trading verbal blows with future NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen? Stephenson backs down to no one.

    He plays with such confidence, and a high motor that often leaves the only possible outcomes on opposite extremes of the spectrum. He can dazzle the crowd with an attacking drive to the rim on one possession, but a careless pass or extremely ill-advised shot by Stephenson can make Pacers fans want to rip their hair out on Indiana's next trip down the court.

    Stephenson's belief that he can do anything on the court likely originates from playing in New York's Rucker League during his teenage years, when he acquired the nickname "Born Ready." Newsday's Greg Logan described the nature of "Born Ready" in an article on May 11.

    Maybe the nickname fit Coney Island's Lance Stephenson back in the day when he was dominating older players in the Rucker League and leading Lincoln High to a record four straight PSAL Class AA titles. Physically, he truly was a man among boys as a teenage basketball phenom.

    So, when a Rucker League announcer bestowed the "Born Ready" nickname upon him, Stephenson not only basked in the glow, he adopted the playground persona as his own. The expectations were reinforced in an online documentary by that title, chronicling his junior year of high school.

    In an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with four All-Stars this season, great individual matchups (three-time MVP LeBron James vs. 2013 Most Improved Player Paul George; Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem vs. Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough) and contrasting styles of play (the finesse and fast-break oriented Heat vs. the physical, defensive-minded Pacers), Stephenson may be the X-factor for the entire series.

    In Tuesday's broadcast on TNT, NBA Hall of Famer and commentator Reggie Miller described Stephenson as the "wild card" in the series. 

    "When he plays under control in a team scheme, this team is very dangerous," Miller said.

    Miller's partner on air, Steve Kerr, said that it never gets old watching Stephenson play.

    "He’s a one-man fast break when he gets the board. He’s going to put his head down and go right to the rim. I love it, it’s a dimension this team doesn’t really have," he said. 

    Stephenson, the state of New York's all-time leading high school scorer, has progressed from a rookie who only appeared in 12 games in the 2010-11 season to becoming a starter and key producer in his third year in the league. "Born Ready" has started all 16 of Indiana's postseason games, averaging more than 10 points and nearly eight rebounds per game to go along with his 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    In the third quarter of Game 3 in last year's Miami-Indiana series, Stephenson gave LeBron James a "choking gesture" after James missed a technical free throw. Stephenson played only seven minutes in the entire series and scored just one point against Miami.

    In this year's Game 4, Stephenson scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and his main defensive assignment, Ray Allen, made just four of his 13 shots in the game.

    Stephenson was born ready for big-time play in the NBA playoffs.

1. Coast-to-Coast for the Assist

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    With 10 minutes and 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter, LeBron James missed a jumper on the low block and Roy Hibbert grabbed the rebound. He gave the ball up to Stephenson in the lane in front of the Pacers' own basket. 

    He sprinted past James and Udonis Haslem to meet the next layer of defense. Stephenson powered past Dwyane Wade with his shoulder and jumped while avoiding a flying Chris Bosh to find a wide-open George Hill on the opposite wing. Hill spotted up at the three-point line and knocked down the open look to give Indiana a 7-0 lead.

    Stephenson's change of pace, court vision and team-first attitude made the play possible. Instead of taking a contested, off-balance shot in traffic, he made a pass to find a better shot for Hill.

2. Lance in the Lane

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    Two offensive possessions later, Stephenson was in attack mode again. He received the ball on the left wing, drove to the lane and absorbed contact from Mario Chalmers before pulling up for a six-foot jump shot. 

    Stephenson was able to get the first step on Chalmers, and when Chalmers caught up to him, Stephenson was strong enough to gather himself before getting a good look in the lane.

3. Through LeBron to the Rim

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    In the final two minutes of the first quarter, LeBron James missed a layup and Tyler Hansbrough swatted the loose ball away from the basket. Stephenson recovered the ball and took off down the court.

    With a head full of steam, Stephenson went straight to the basket, made contact with James twice on the way to the rim and was able to lay the ball in for two points. 

    He drove head on towards the five-time NBA All-First Team defender and simply overpowered the best player in the game in the lane.

4. Isolation Against Allen

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    As the first quarter of Game 4 was winding down, Stephenson was alone with the ball just across midcourt as Ray Allen defended him. With the shot clock in single digits, he took advantage of the isolation matchup, blew past Allen and hit a runner in the lane with five seconds left in the quarter.

    Stephenson proved his ability to create his own shot and to come up big for the Pacers in clutch moments.

5. Defending LeBron

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    With four minutes and 46 seconds remaining in the second quarter, LeBron James drew a foul against Paul George as James moved across the lane. It was George's third foul, and Indiana coach Frank Vogel sat George for the rest of the half, which meant that Stephenson was assigned to guard James. 

    On the Heat's first possession with George on the bench, James received the ball on the block as the rest of his teammates cleared away from the lane. Stephenson bodied him up, cut off James' lanes to the basket and forced him to take a turn-around, fadeaway jump shot that barely touched the bottom of the rim.

    James didn't have another shot attempt until a last-second layup at the end of the half.

6. Fadeaway from the Corner at the Buzzer

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    In the third quarter, Lance Stephenson's metamorphosis into "Born Ready" was complete. He split two defenders on a jump stop in the lane before sinking a contested jumper at the start of the quarter. Later on, Stephenson fought his way from the baseline to tip in a one-handed putback on a second-chance opportunity.

    However, Stephenson's biggest play of the quarter, and perhaps the game, was seconds after LeBron James elbowed David West on his way down the court, sparking an offensive foul call by the officials.

    George Hill took the ball out for the Pacers on the far sideline with two seconds remaining in the quarter. When his first three options failed to get open, Hill threw a jump pass to the opposite corner to Stephenson, who knocked down a fadeaway, high-arcing three-pointer in the face of Dwyane Wade. Stephenson fell to the ground as the ball went through the net and Bankers Life Fieldhouse exploded into cheers. 

    For the second time in the game, Stephenson sunk a shot with time running out in the quarter. It would have been difficult to find a shot with a higher degree of difficulty, and by making the three-pointer, Stephenson put the Pacers up by seven going into the fourth quarter.