Stephenson Injecting New Life into Pacers

Five days after first meeting with the media upon re-signing with the Pacers, three days after making his second debut with the Pacers and one day after his homecourt debut with the Pacers, Lance Stephenson is still the story for the Pacers.

How could he not be, given the unprecedented impact he’s had on his teammates – not just in the box score but on their emotions, seemingly seeping into their DNA and executing a personality transformation unlike any seen in the franchise’s 50-season history?

The echoes from Tuesday’s victory over Toronto, in which the Pacers came from 19 points down in the second quarter to win by 18, could still be felt at Bankers Life Fieldhouse following Wednesday’s practice. The players were more animated while shooting around, the end-of-practice huddle at center court was louder and the interview requests strayed from the norm.

Paul George, normally the primary target of the microphones and cameras, was given the day off. Jeff Teague, who showed uncharacteristic emotion in the win over the Raptors, was a popular interview request. And Stephenson, rarely an engaging conversationalist in his first four seasons with the Pacers, and therefore rarely requested, showed off his new, improved personality once again.

“I was over there looking jealous,” he joked about the lack of attention he got from the media after practices during his first four seasons with the franchise.

That’s not likely to be the case again. Stephenson is so unabashedly happy to be “home,” has been such a productive inspiration in games and has been so immediately embraced by teammates and fans alike that he’ll never fly below the radar again. Should the Pacers make the playoffs – they moved into the eighth spot after Tuesday’s win and are within range of the fifth if they beat Milwaukee on Thursday — he will get most of the credit and become a national story for something other than blowing in LeBron’s ear.

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His impact could be summarized neatly in the emotion suddenly unleashed by Teague on Tuesday. Normally as laid-back as a Barcalounger, Teague leaned back, stomped his feet and screamed to the mountain tops after hitting an impressive four-footer off a one-on-one move in the fourth quarter. Asked about it on Wednesday, he was back in his reserved mode.

“No, man, that wasn’t me,” he said, smiling. “Having fun out there.”

Pressed on the issue, he confessed to feeling something.

“We were down 15. We made a good comeback. The crowd was great. Just that kind of feeling.”

The crowd was great because of Stephenson, who received a standing ovation when he entered the game with 4:09 left in the first quarter and had the fans out of their seats for most of the fourth quarter, when the Pacers completed their comeback with a 31-15 blitz of the Raptors.

Stephenson scored all 12 of his points in the period, hitting 5-of-6 shots, including both 3-point attempts. He created a frenzy rarely seen in a regular season game, connecting with the fans like nobody not named Reggie Miller, and it’s a frenzy that fans are taking to the streets.

Stephenson is living in a downtown hotel. It’s a luxurious but simple existence. His call-up by the Pacers was sudden and unexpected, so he didn’t have time to gather any belongings beyond packing a suitcase. He wore a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and jeans to Tuesday’s game, and that’s going to be the norm for a while.

“I have three outfits,” he said. “I’m trying to wear the sweat suits. If you see me slacking on my gear, don’t laugh at me. I’m sweat-suiting it out.”

He also has no car for the time being, so he’s walking back and forth between his hotel and the fieldhouse. He joked about putting a towel over his head and trying to hide from the public, but knows that’s a futile effort. And, he doesn’t mind, anyway.

“They still notice me,” he said. ‘That’s you! I see you!’ It’s fun, man. I love these fans out here, so whenever they see me I stop and take pictures. So, don’t be afraid to come up to me, because I’ll stop and take pictures.”

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was miked up for a preseason practice in October, and talked about the players’ choice of bringing sunshine or clouds to work each day. The Pacers have no clouds, really. They’re a pleasant group of guys who get along well and smile a lot. But they haven’t had a bright blue sky like Stephenson, who cheers from the bench when he’s not in the game and gets everyone involved and inspired when he’s in the game.

Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones, who played in the NBA for 11 seasons and has been a longtime coach since then, says he’s never seen anything like the transformation Stephenson has brought to the Pacers.

Why is that happening here after it didn’t happen with Charlotte, the Clippers, Memphis, New Orleans and Minnesota? Familiarity, for one. McMillan, Jones and Dan Burke were with the Pacers during Stephenson’s last season with them before departing in free agency three years ago. They know his game and they trust him. They’re not afraid to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line, as they did against the Raptors. He responded with a kick-out assist from the baseline to Myles Turner for a 3-pointer and a whirling dish to Thad Young for a layup in the fourth quarter.

“He has to be a primary ballhandler to make it work because he’s going to dominate the ball and make plays,” Jones said. “He needs shooters out there around him, and we let him do that. We stay on him about focusing on the defensive end. He’s a very coachable kid and he listens to us and has a lot of respect for us.

“And, he’s happy to be back home.”

It’s indeed home again. Stephenson has 30 days on the Pacers’ dime to stay in his hotel, then he’ll find a permanent residence and move his belongings here. He sold his previous house last year, but will find another one in the suburbs and settle in again.

If he has his way, it will be a long time before he leaves.

Stephenson Appealing Technical Foul

Stephenson said Wednesday he is filing an appeal with the NBA to have the technical foul called on him at the end of Tuesday’s game with Toronto rescinded.

Stephenson was confronted by Raptors P.J. Tucker and DeMar DeRozan at midcourt after converting an unguarded layup with 3.3 seconds left in the Pacers’ 118-90 victory, a violation of NBA protocol. With each of them shouting at him, he walked silently between them and headed for the Pacers’ bench.

“I did a good job of just walking away and not feeding into it,” he said. “I know I made a mistake, but I did a good job of not pushing anyone back, just kept walking, did the right thing. I was very amped and the crowd was saying ‘go, go.’ I just wanted to do everything to have the fans enjoy the game. I’m sorry for that, but I was just having fun.

“You still have rules to the game and the rule is you respect the other opponent. I was feeding into the crowd and that was my mistake. I’m just going to move forward from that.”

Tucker later called Stephenson’s decision to hit the layup “classless and tasteless,” and DeRozan called it “unprofessional.” Stephenson, while meaning no harm, said he wouldn’t have been as angry if the roles had been reversed. He grew up in Brooklyn and played on the asphalt playgrounds, where feelings aren’t as easily hurt.

“It would be, ‘We’ll see you all next game,'” he said. “That’s about it. I wouldn’t have been as mad as (DeRozan and Tucker).

“In the playground, everybody’s going for numbers, so you’re scoring until (the final buzzer sounds). You can’t relate that to the playgrounds, no.”

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