Paul George and Lance Stephenson may not entertain fans like the Golden State Warriors' all-time-great shooting duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but the pair of Indiana Pacers wings are starting to garner similar attention as, potentially, one of the best defensive tandems in NBA history.
In Indiana's impressive 102-94 road victory over the Warriors, its two-headed defensive monster was on full display.
George and Stephenson hounded the Warriors' highly skilled scorers, forcing them to dart around brutal screens and closing out on open shots with length and quickness few players can match. There were still a handful of open shots for both Curry and Thompson, but aside from a late-game hot streak from Golden State's off-guard, most of those opportunities resulted in misses.
You can bet that the fatigue of fighting off George and Stephenson (and the criminally underappreciated George Hill) had plenty to do with some of those misfires on open looks.
Curry was just 3-of-11 from long distance, and Thompson managed to knock down six of 13 shots overall. But nothing came easily, thanks to the Pacers' staunch defense.
It's unfair to limit our appreciation of Indiana's dominant wings to their defensive contributions; both are well-rounded players who have made massive strides in each of the past two seasons. Stephenson, in particular, has become a completely different player on the court and in the court of public opinion:
Lance Stephenson made the "laughing at" to "laughing with" leap this year— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) January 21, 2014
George, as we all know, is a superstar, a fringe MVP candidate and one of the brightest young talents to come along in years. But both he and Stephenson started their climbs on the defensive end.
Before we figure out how great the duo might someday be, it'll help to first appreciate how good they already are.
We'll start with Stephenson, a player many believe should be a candidate to join the February festivities in New Orleans this year:
Despite a major spike in his usage rate (it's gone from 15.2 percent last year to 19.2 percent this year, per Basketball-Reference.com), Stephenson has actually become much more efficient. That doesn't usually happen, and it's a testament to his overall growth that more responsibilities haven't dulled his effectiveness.
Stephenson possesses the rare combination of high aggression and startling unselfishness. His wild attacks are often designed to draw defenders so he can facilitate instead of finishing the play. Against the Warriors, he amassed 14 points and 10 rebounds but also led the Pacers with seven assists.
In addition to all that, he's still immensely valuable to Indiana's defensive efforts. As a matter of fact, it's pretty much impossible to log significant minutes for head coach Frank Vogel without being fully committed to squeezing the life out of opponents on D.
According to 82games.com, Stephenson holds opposing shooting guards to a PER of just 9.9. Small forwards fare slightly better, but with a PER of 11.6, they still perform at levels far below league average.
Stephenson stifles opponents with raw energy, an adherence to Indy's rigid scheme and, above all, a devilish delight. He loves putting the clamps on offensive players—the more reputedly dangerous, the better.
Can I tweet more about Lance Stephenson now? Huge fan of his edge, cockiness. Opposing teams & fans despise him. That's why #Pacers love him— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) January 21, 2014
Remember, though, he doesn't do it alone.
What's there left to say about George?
Alright, Paul George. We get it. You're incredibly good at this roundball thing.— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) January 21, 2014
The guy has vaulted into a leadership position at age 23, seems to only be getting better and is fully comfortable being the voice of a team with championship aspirations. His offensive gifts have developed more recently, but George's greatness began on the defensive end.
Like Stephenson, he's murder on individual opponents. Shooting guards have amassed a comically low PER of 6.8 against George, while small forwards have only reached 12.5, per 82games.com.
If the numbers don't convince you, check out a few games. George cares deeply about defense, and his effort almost never drops below the "maniacally intense" setting. If observation isn't enough, why not just take George's word for it:
Oh, and if it seemed like he had a little bit of extra motivation in Monday's matchup against the Warriors, it might have been because he laid an 0-of-7 egg in his last visit to Golden State.
Per The Associated Press (via ESPN), Vogel said of that 103-92 loss on Dec. 1, 2012: "That game changed everything, for our franchise and for (George). It forced him to change his approach."
Opponents now hope George changes his approach again, preferably to one that doesn't involve relentless defensive pressure and a chip on his shoulder.
We can definitely pump the brakes on any talk of Stephenson and George already being the best defensive wing duo in league history. They haven't been together long enough, won enough or proved enough to warrant anything close to that distinction.
But the foundation is there.
Remember, too, that the Pacers' team defense—which might actually deserve to be called the best ever—doesn't succeed on the strength of Stephenson or George alone. It's a collection of stoppers who work together in a scheme that runs on communication, trust and effort.
Every night, Stephenson and George are at the point of attack harassing opponents' best scorers on the perimeter. But Hill is right there alongside them, and David West and Roy Hibbert are behind them. They're not shutting teams down all by themselves.
Right now, there's little question that Indy's wings are the best defensive pair in the league. But they're a long way from being considered on par with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or even a vintage combination of Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier.
If they sustain their current levels and Indiana can keep Stephenson when he hits free agency this summer, they could eventually get there, though. And a high-profile, defense-fueled championship run this season sure wouldn't hurt in that effort.