While several positives can be taken from the Pacers’ 2-3 start to the season, the play of Lance Stephenson stands out as an exception.
Stephenson is averaging just 6.2 points in 19 minutes per game while shooting just 27 percent from the field, 13 percent from the 3-point line and 38.5 percent from the foul line. It’s been a surprisingly slow beginning given his performance at the end of last season, when he joined the Pacers for their final six regular season games and first-round playoff series with Cleveland. Then, he averaged 7.2 points over an average of 22 minutes while hitting 41 percent of his field goals, 62.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 67 percent of his free throws.
Stephenson has expressed no dissatisfaction with his sixth man role, but has not found a niche with his new teammates or comfort with limited playing time. He played 24 minutes in the opener, but has played less than 20 in each game since then.
“Just trying to get in a rhythm, trying to get in spots where I’m comfortable,” he said Saturday.
He was admittedly too “hyped” for the opening game and forced some shots, and has since appeared to struggle with how assertive to be.
“I think I’m thinking too much,” he said.
Stephenson’s shooting woes have presented a chicken-egg conundrum. Has his poor shooting affected the rest of his game, or has his lack of comfort while adjusting to new teammates affected his shooting?
Either way, he expects it work out.
“I’m going to keep shooting,” he said. “My confidence is never going to go down. In practice I don’t miss, so it’s probably just mental. A lot of rushed shots. Just stay poised and don’t get out of it. Bring it every game. I haven’t lost my confidence at all.”
Stephenson established an immediate pick-and-roll chemistry with Domantas Sabonis, but Myles Turner’s injury sent Sabonis to the starting lineup and left Stephenson without his primary passing target in the second unit. His backcourt partner, Cory Joseph, also handles the ball frequently, presenting another adjustment.
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Joseph said when asked his advice for Stephenson.
“Keep making good basketball plays. When you’re open shoot the shot. We’re a team that likes to move the ball, so try to make cuts off the ball more … he knows that stuff. We’re all fully behind him and it’s only a matter of time before he starts making shots.”
Turner-Sabonis Combo an Intriguing Concept
Rebounding has been, and figures to continue to be, an issue for the Pacers. It only makes sense then to wonder how things would go if their two best rebounders were playing together.
That would be Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis, the 6-11 21-year-olds who have spent just a few precious moments together in games so far this season, with inconclusive results. The concussion Turner suffered late in the opener against Brooklyn has prevented further examination of the combination, but Sabonis’ performance since then has made it all the more enticing.
Pacers coach Nate McMillan used the word “absolutely” three timse when asked about it following Saturday’s practice at the St. Vincent Center practice facility.
“I certainly see those two guys playing together,” McMillan said.
Turner grabbed 14 rebounds against Brooklyn. Sabonis, who replaced Turner in the starting lineup after that game, has averaged 9.8 rebounds in five outings despite being limited by foul trouble to 24.6 minutes per game. He’s grabbed 12, 11, and 11 rebounds in his last three games, and had 11 at Oklahoma City on Wednesday despite playing just 18:44.
The Pacers ranked 26th in rebounding last season, and are 19th so far this season. They rank that high mostly because of a dominating performance in the victory at Minnesota, when they outrebounded the Timberwolves 42-27. They have been outrebounded by a total of 20 in their three losses.
Turner and Sabonis would not appear to be likely to get in one another’s way if playing together. Sabonis can post up or play on the perimeter — he was an effective 3-point shooter for most of last season with Oklahoma City — while Turner prefers playing on the perimeter but has put increasing focus on his post-up game.
“It gives us some size, it gives us some versatility,” McMillan said. “We’re big, but we still have the speed and athleticism to defend and run our sets.
“I look forward to getting to that as much as possible.”
What remains to be seen is who plays with them on the frontline. Thaddeus Young, the current power forward in the starting lineup, played some small forward last season, but McMillan considers him much more a “four” than a “three.” McMillan could start Turner and Sabonis with Bojan Bogdanovic and bring Young off the bench, or keep the intended starting lineup frontline of Turner, Young, and Bogdanovic intact and bring Sabonis off the bench for starter-quantity minutes.
Either way, the experiment will resume after Turner returns.
Turner on Hand, All Smiles
Myles Turner won’t play on Sunday against San Antonio, and likely won’t play in Tuesday’s home game against Sacramento. His presence at Saturday’s practice was a source of his optimism for his return, however.
Turner, who traveled with the team on its recent three-day road trip, did not participate in the workout but was smiling and energetic while conversing with teammates. He was not available to the media.
“They’re slowly having him do a little more,” McMillan said of the Pacers’ training staff. “Sometimes the noise and lights have an effect on that type of injury, but today he’s up and moving around, which is good to see.”
Championship Has a Nice Ring to it
San Antonio brings a 4-1 record into Sunday’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, having suffered its first loss of the season on Friday in Orlando. That’s despite playing without All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and veteran point guard Tony Parker, a former All-Star likely destined for the Hall of Fame.
Joseph is not surprised. He played his first four NBA seasons with the Spurs after they made him a first-round draft pick (29th overall) in 2011, and is fully aware of their system and player development.
“They play very well together,” he said. “They’re all high-IQ guys. The system they run is very unselfish. Any time you play them you’re going to have to have your ‘A’ game because they’re going to have theirs.”
Joseph, who is averaging 10.6 points with the Pacers, was a member of San Antonio’s 2014 championship team. He averaged 2.8 points in 5.1 minutes per game in the postseason, but that experience helped lay the groundwork for the player he’s become.
He also got a championship ring out of it, one he keeps hidden away.
“I keep it locked up in a safe,” he said.
“I don’t wear it. It’s kind of the unwritten rule. You don’t wear your ring as you’re still playing. When I’m older and have grandkids and all that, I’ll show it off every day.”
Asked the location of the safe containing the ring, he refused to divulge.
“That information cannot be shared,” he said, smiling. “I don’t want people looking for me.”
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