The Pacers have brought back 16 players for a second chapter in their 50-season history, six since joining the NBA.
They’ve never experienced anything like what happened Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, however, when Lance Stephenson lit a spark that ignited the fans and his teammates for better, and the Toronto Raptors for worse.
Billy Knight came back. Newly-minted Hall of Fame George McGinnis came back. Mark Jackson came back. Dale Davis came back. Al Harrington came back. And now Lance Stephenson is back. And this collection of Pacers, to its good fortune, will never be the same again
Whether he was shouting encouragement from the bench, wagging his tongue to celebrate the good moments, keeping up a running dialogue with Raptors, stopping to stare at front-row fans after dropping a 3-pointer or even dribbling in for an ill-advised layup in the final seconds, Stephenson made things happen in the Pacers’ 108-90 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was the biggest win of the season for the Pacers and it came amid the most electrifying atmosphere, challenged only by the season-opening overtime win over Dallas, back when the season was fresh and optimism reigned. The Pacers moved back into the playoff picture, in the eighth and final position. They are a half-game ahead of ninth-place Miami, tied with seventh-place Chicago, a game-and-a-half back of sixth-place Atlanta and two back of fifth-place Milwaukee.
They don’t own the tiebreaker with Milwaukee, so perhaps it’s overly optimistic to be talking of that kind of advancement, but Stephenson has generated that kind of feeling by regenerating a team that had failed to find traction.
“It was fun,” said Paul George, who followed Sunday’s 43-point performance in Cleveland with 35 points and 10 rebounds. “The atmosphere was amazing. I haven’t felt that in a long time.”
George, like everyone else in the Pacers’ locker room, knows where the feeling comes from. It’s the guy over in the corner, at Rodney Stuckey’s old stall, now wearing jersey No. 6.
“That’s all six, man, that’s all six,” George said. “It’s contagious. When he gets into that mode and gets fired up, it’s a contagious thing. It’s natural. That’s who Lance is and that’s what this locker room lacked.”
The box score doesn’t begin to tell the story of Stephenson’s impact on the Pacers, and on this game. He came off the bench and scored 10 points in 25 minutes, adding three assists, a steal and a turnover. It was a nice performance, statistically, but so much more than that. He was the reason the players on the bench were up and shouting throughout most of the second half, the reason they were rushing onto the court to greet their teammates when the Raptors had to call timeout to stop their momentum, the reason Jeff Teague — Jeff Teague! — was stomping his feet and screaming at the roof to celebrate his difficult driving shot off a spinning one-on-one move and the reason Thad Young fist-bumped all his remaining teammates before leaving the locker room afterward.
“He was just firing guys up,” George said. “It makes guys around him believe. He brought the best out of everybody.”
The closest the Pacers’ franchise has ever come to an experience like what happened on Tuesday came on Feb. 5, 1980, when McGinnis played his first game after he was acquired in a trade for Alex English and a first-round draft pick. McGinnis was an Indianapolis native who had helped lead the Pacers to two ABA championships and shared league Most Valuable Player honors with Julius Erving. His return sold out Market Square Arena, but it didn’t bring a victory. He scored 14 points and grabbed 13 rebounds off the bench in a one-point loss to Philadelphia.
McGinnis, 29 at the time, received a one-minute standing ovation when introduced before the game, but he didn’t affect the outcome or his teammates’ outlook as much as Stephenson did in his first game back in front of the Pacers’ fans. Stephenson has performed a desperately-needed personality transplant to a team with good intentions but lacking the fire make them happen.
Toronto led by 19 points midway through the second quarter, and had the ball with a chance to extend the lead. The Pacers had to finish well just to match their lowest-scoring first half of the season, and trailed 51-40. But they followed with their highest-scoring half of the season, dominating the Raptors 68-39.
Stephenson finished the game with the starters, replacing Monta Ellis in the closing lineup. He played point guard at times, moving Teague to the wing, and simply made things happen. He hit a 15-footer jumper to open the quarter, added an 18-footer a few minutes later, and kicked out a pass to Myles Turner for a 3-pointer shortly after that. Teague followed with his difficult shot near the basket off a one-on-one move, completing a 9-0 run and setting off an uncharacteristic celebration by the introverted point guard as the Raptors called timeout with 7 1/2 minutes left.
The Pacers’ next basket came off Stephenson spinning into the lane and feeding Thad Young for a layup. Stephenson hit a 3-pointer from the left wing later in the period, and then another from the right wing to give the Pacers a 100-90 lead with 1:24 left.
The game was in hand by that point, and the fans were caught up in the delirium of the comeback. So was Stephenson, who took a pass from Paul George and dribbled in for a casual layup with 3.3 seconds left. It was a violation of protocol, which expects players to dribble out the clock in that situation. Stephenson was met by DeRozan and P.J. Tucker at midcourt after his layup. They barked in each ear, but Stephenson — who had been jawing with Tucker throughout much of the quarter and had flattened him on a screen late in the game — said nothing and walked toward the Pacers’ bench.
It got tense for a while, as Tucker wouldn’t let the matter die and players and coaches began milling around on the court near the Pacers’ bench, some shouting but most of them restraining. Stephenson retreated to the tunnel to get away from it all while Pacers coach Nate McMillan restrained Tucker. Tucker, DeRozan and, curiously, Stephenson, were charged with technical fouls.
“Tasteless; classless,” Tucker declared in the Raptors’ locker room afterward. “There’s no room in the league for that. There’s a way to win and there’s a way to lose in this league and that ain’t the way to win. That ain’t the way to finish games, they know that. That dude has no class, no taste.”
McMillan addressed the issue with Stephenson afterward, and Stephenson was apologetic when talking with reporters.
“Everybody was chanting my name and saying, ‘go, go,'” Stephenson said. “I just want to say I’m sorry to the Raptors. I didn’t mean any harm. I was very excited, my first game back home and I wanted to do it for the fans. I know I made a mistake and I’m sorry for that. I was caught up in the moment.”
“I’ll take fault for passing it to him,” George said. “It’s kind of a cardinal rule. Just hold on to the ball.”
That moment will generate headlines, but the Stephenson’s presence was felt in more important ways. He takes defensive pressure of George, he takes ballhandling pressure off Teague, and, most importantly, he can create offense out of thin air. The Pacers have struggled to get good shots from their half-court sets throughout the season. Now they have someone who can solve that all by himself.
“He junks up the game a little bit, which is good for us,” Young said.
A week ago, the Pacers blew a lead and lost a homecourt game to Minnesota. It was a dispiriting loss, and led to two more, in Memphis and Cleveland. Now, suddenly, they have new life with four games left to play. All because of “six.”
Stephenson admits now he never should have left three years ago, when he took questionable advice and refused the Pacers’ offer in free agency. He held on to his house southeast of Indianapolis for two years, hoping he would get to move back into it, but finally sold it last summer.
He has played for Charlotte, the Clippers, Memphis, New Orleans, and Minnesota since leaving the Pacers, but hung on to his dream of returning to where his NBA career began and prospered. He began communicating again with Pacers president Larry Bird two years ago, rekindling a relationship he considers father-and-son-like, and hung on to his dream.
“I shouldn’t have never left from the beginning,” he said. “It was a hard road, a very emotional road, but I stuck with it. I felt like I learned a lot from other players. It humbled me a lot. It showed me that every team isn’t for you.
“Now I’m back home and ready to come back and make an impact again.”
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