For significant stretches of Tuesday’s Game 2 slugfest between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, Lance Stephenson looked every bit the part of his “Born Ready” nickname—not to mention the best player on the court.
Yet when all was said and done, it was the Heat who rode LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s 45 combined points to a 87-83 win to knot the Eastern Conference Finals at a game apiece.
In an alternate universe, Stephenson’s brilliant performance winds up the single biggest blow to Miami’s chances at a repeat.
In this one, the superlatives were simply squandered.
The series now shifts to Miami, where the defending champs have a chance to take full control of the series and bring Indiana’s roller-coaster season to a final, jarring stop.
That is, of course, unless the Pacers can count on another four or five Stephenson outbursts—and not the kind prone to put the hotheaded guard in suspension-sanctioned street clothes.
Albeit in vain, Stephenson did a little bit of everything: canning tough jumpers with a hand at his head, completing impossible plays through contact at the rim and generally playing the part of punishing pest to Miami’s more graceful wings.
A scan across the box score yields a true stat-stuffer: 25 points (including 10 in the third quarter alone), six rebounds and seven assists on 10-of-17 shooting, a performance as efficient as it was effervescent. Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star passed along Pacers coach Frank Vogel's thoughts:
Vogel on Lance: "Spectacular. No other way to put it. He was either making a big shot or a big play for us seemingly the whole 3rd quarter."— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) May 21, 2014
Unfortunately, the numbers get uglier the further down the rows you you go. In 38 combined minutes, the Pacers benched accounted for a measly 11 points—decisive in a game where Miami’s mustered a mere 20.
It won’t be Luis Scola or Rasual Butler who bear the brunt of second-guesses, of course. That honor belongs to Paul George and David West, who combined to shoot 9-of-32 from the floor. Their performances typified the team’s struggles from the field, where the Pacers could only manage a 40-percent clip.
But no Pacer, not even Stephenson—who tallied just two points in the final frame—can fully escape the blame for what happened down the fourth-quarter stretch: nearly four scoreless minutes, broken only by a handful of garbage-time buckets.
That this is a loss that looms large goes without saying. With four days rest before Saturday’s Game 3, the Heat knew they could play LeBron James for 42 minutes without any real repercussions.
The good news for Indiana—way back and below the fold thought it might be—lies in the fact that, for this team, momentum means nothing. In their eight road games this postseason, the Pacers are 6-2, exhibit A for how deep this wildly unpredictable collective can dig when the chips are down and the doubters loud.
"It's a split. We'll respond. We'll look at the tape, make our adjustments, and come back for Game 3." - Coach Vogel— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 21, 2014
Indeed, more than any playoff team in recent memory—certainly more than any No. 1 seed—these Pacers actually seem to thrive in the role of irretrievable.
What other explanation can there be for the dominance of November and December disintegrating at the first sign of championship expectations?
What contrary rationale can one conjure to account for Sunday's stellar Game 1 showing?
Which is what makes Stephenson’s stellar play of late so perfectly timed. For if there’s anyone for whom being counted out carries a more world-weary weight, it’s the scrappy kid from Brooklyn, the basketball prodigy with a solar-hot game and a temper to match.
Then, during Indiana's early-season onslaught, something unexpected: Stephenson's tempo, it seemed, had finally caught up to his temper.
Here's how Grantland's Zach Lowe put it in a piece penned back in November:
Stephenson is more calculating, more aware of where his teammates are and will be. He’ll decelerate, veer into the middle of the floor, draw the defense there, and wait for the shooter behind him to fill the now-vacated corner. Hell, he has even slowed down to wait for trailers on a few possessions. That’s right: Lance Stephenson has slowed down, on purpose, on some fast breaks this season.
Stephenson has garnered a reputation as an emeritus-level trash talker. Even when the invectives are veiled, as they were when he admitted he'd try and make Wade’s “knees flair up” prior to Game 1.
But as Keefer notes, the on-court histrionics of Heat showdowns past—the choke sign levied at LeBron, the ejection following a Wade-taunt back in March—have been replaced, at least temporarily, by Stephenson's pure passion:
I just watch myself in film and sometimes I feel like I (am) doing too much. I'm just gonna play poised and when I make something happen, keep the same face the whole game…I'm always confident, very poised to play the right way and don't overreact when I score. Just play the right way and get my teammates involved.
But for as big a leap as Stephenson and George have made individually, the team’s fortunes have been far more fettered. Most infamously, of course, being center Roy Hibbert’s absurd oscillation between feared frontcourt linchpin to loafing shadow and back again.
At this point, the Pacers can’t afford any more regressions or roller-coaster dives, even for a game. The Heat have seen far too many wars to give up anything more than well-fought battles.
And battle Stephenson did Tuesday night, just as he has for most of these playoffs. Now if only his comrades could take that cue, the Pacers could stand to finally complete their Eastern Conference coup—two years and a world of hurt in the making.