Frequently exalted for his versatile skill set, yet often vilified for his equally wide-ranging levels of emotions, Stephenson is everything the Pacers need to make a deep playoff run and legitimate title push.
He's also a one-man, postseason-derailing machine. He is Indiana's version of J.R. Smith, with higher upside. He is a walking contradiction, a rim-rocking, three-point-chucking, defense-varying enigma.
As he reminded us Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Stephenson is the consummate head-scratcher, whose play can either inspire or infuriate, sometimes within the same game.
First place was at stake for the Pacers. A win over the Thunder would place them atop the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Miami Heat, once again within striking distance of their season-long goal.
Unlike his outing against the Heat on Friday, Stephenson delivered, going for 17 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists on 7-of-10 shooting, notching his fifth triple-double of the season.
More importantly, he marched his way into the Pacers record books by registering five triple-doubles:
There isn't another team in the NBA with this type of wild card. X-factors don't notch triple-doubles or frequently take center stage. That's for the stars to do.
As good as he's been this season, Stephenson isn't a superstar by conventional standards. On the Pacers alone, he's arguably fourth in their pecking order, despite being their second-best player.
Paul George is their resident luminary and No. 1 scoring option. Roy Hibbert, feckless and hopeless on offense, remains their most important line of defense. David West is their emotional windfall. Stephenson—well, he's Stephenson.
In just his fourth season, he's successfully made the transition from iffy prospect to controversial celebrity. On some nights, he looks on the verge of becoming a questionless superstar, his production guaranteed and his emotional responses predictable and constructive.
When the Pacers get that Stephenson, they win. A lot.
The Pacers are 4-1 when Stephenson tallies a triple-double. Better yet, they win 78.3 percent of the time (18-5) when he goes for at least 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists, noteworthy only because he's averaging 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on the season. So when he hits his statistical benchmarks, the Pacers are nigh unbeatable.
What other team has that kind of production coming from an X-factor?
Still no one.
Three players are averaging at least 13.5 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game this season: Kevin Love, Durant and Stephenson—two superstars and Stephenson.
This type of production and impact is typically reserved for the Loves and the Durants. That the Pacers have this coming out of Stephenson, who was widely considered their fourth-best player before this season, is absurd.
If he can use his ever-present swagger to maintain his season averages through the postseason, the Pacers, still largely disappointing, are going back to the Eastern Conference Finals, putting themselves in position to do what they couldn't one year ago.
Then again, that's a big "if."
Talent is never the question with Stephenson, nor has it ever been. Tempering his emotions has been the real, sometimes costly challenge.
No matter how well Stephenson plays, his intrinsic bravado is still liable to get the best of him. It doesn't matter what the stakes are. Stephenson is a colorful player who can go from impassioned to destructive to ejected in seconds.
Remember, Stephenson was ejected in one of the Pacers' biggest games this season, effectively putting a desire to taunt Dwyane Wade over the outcome of a pivotal contest. That outburst ultimately didn't cost the Pacers any ground, but there's always a chance another one could.
"I definitely can't do things that cost us games and let my teammates down," Stephenson said then, per The Indianapolis Star's Michael Pointer. "I'm a big factor to the team."
Heading into Sunday's matchup against Oklahoma City, George was hitting only 38.3 percent of his shots over the last 10 games. George Hill was shooting 38.5 percent. Hibbert, offensively lost and gauche as ever, was hitting 31.5 percent. None of those players eclipsed 35.3 percent shooting against the Thunder.
Hibbert was especially bad, shooting 0-for-9 from floor in just over 27 minutes of action. George's struggles continued too. He shot 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) en route to dropping 20 points, aided in part by a strong showing from deep (3-of-6).
But the Pacers still won. Stephenson's strong performance, commingled with West's incredible effort, won the game. His energy, his numbers, prevented the Pacers from squandering yet another golden opportunity.
That's why they need him. Just as he's not your usual X-factor, the Pacers aren't your typical contender. Not right now.
Problems still abound for the Pacers, who have not yet put enough distance between themselves and a demoralizing stretch of 4-9 basketball.
Integral players are still performing like crap at the worst possible time. George's shot selection has a mom's week-old, not-at-all-refrigerated meatloaf feel to it. Hibbert cannot be relied upon to play like a gazelle outside of practice.
The Pacers are still paying the price for deepening their bench instead of addressing the point guard situation with players who have hardly deepened their bench.
Confidence is still waning. Even in a win over the Thunder, it wasn't there. Something is off across the roster, and it has been for some time. That's why they need Stephenson. He's an uninhibited source of heart and fearlessness.
Those qualities can sometimes lead to ejections and in-game mishaps, and Stephenson, as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher points out in the below video, is also out for himself in a contract year.
But that can be a good thing.
Stephenson, self-serving agenda and all, is more a spirited catalyst than he is an animated deterrent. Efforts like those against the Thunder outnumber toxic displays of immaturity. More importantly, they're necessary.
"I think we’re on our way back to being us again," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after the win over Oklahoma City, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness.
Perhaps they are. But they won't unequivocally get there, they won't reach the playoffs with the means to win, without Stephenson being Stephenson, routinely booming, seldom busting.
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