Stephenson Reborn, and Ready for a Busy Summer

Lance Stephenson’s first order of business in the offseason will be to find a place to live. He’s already begun looking for a house, and plans to find something soon so he can move out of his downtown hotel and establish a new home.

His second order of business will be to gather all his belongings scattered across the country. “I’ve got stuff everywhere, man,” he says, which means he has some things in a storage unit in New Orleans, where he began this season, some things in a unit in Minnesota where he last played before rejoining the Pacers last month, some things in New York, where he was living after he was released by the Timberwolves, and some things near Las Vegas, where his parents live.

His third and most important order of business: get healthy.

Stephenson played on a left ankle that was about 75 percent of its normal strength after joining the Pacers for their final six regular season games and the playoff series that ended on Sunday with a 106-102 loss to Cleveland. You only would have known by watching him carefully when he jogged up and down the court; he tended to go up on the toes of his left foot. Still, he performed admirably, scoring 22 points in 30 minutes in the final game and averaging 16 points on 51 percent shooting for the four-game playoff series.

He played the fifth-most minutes among Pacers in the postseason, but ranked third in points and assists and fourth in rebounds, and had just four turnovers in his 107 minutes.

That was more than anyone reasonably could have anticipated, and offers hope for next season. The change Stephenson brought to the team was so dramatic as to divide the season into two distinct segments: pre-Lance Pacers and post-Lance Pacers. Although they were 5-5 in the games he played, all five losses were to the defending champion Cavaliers and all five were closely contested. His debut in the April 2 regular season game in Cleveland went to double-overtime. The four playoff games were decided by a combined 16 points, and all were up for grabs in the final minute.

Stephenson is under contract for next season, and the Pacers have an option on the season after that. That bodes well for all concerned. The Pacers know they have a contributing, and perhaps standout, player safely in the fold and Stephenson has enough security to go house-hunting this summer after a three-year nomadic journey that took him to five other NBA teams after his advisers rejected the Pacers’ contract offer in 2014.

Stephenson, to varying degrees, had productive moments with Charlotte, the Clippers, New Orleans, Memphis and Minnesota, but never approached the promising level of play he established with the Pacers in the 2013-14 season or in his return to the Pacers this season. The difference comes from being entrusted with the ball to make plays and from being “home” again.

The fans, who loudly and warmly embraced him after he rejoined the team, get partial credit for that.

“I felt important,” he said following Sunday’s game. “That made me play even better. When you’ve got people in the whole stadium believing in you, not just the team but the whole stadium believing in you … even through mistakes they were ‘Come on, you can do it!’

“Some guys need that push. I needed it at that point. I was real down when I got here.”

Stephenson’s comfort and compatibility with his new surroundings showed most obviously in his 3-point percentage. After hitting 35 percent of his attempts with the Pacers three years ago, he set an NBA record for futility with Charlotte in the 2014-15 season, making just 18-of-105 attempts (.171). He shot well in brief stays with the Clippers (40 percent) and Memphis (35.5) last season, but was just 1-of-10 with New Orleans and 0-of-2 with Minnesota earlier this season.

With the Pacers this time around, he hit 12-of-24 attempts.

“I know this court,” he said. “And when you know you’re going to get the ball and you’re confident your teammates are going to hit you when you’re wide open, you get confidence in your shot. You shoot like you shoot in practice.”

If Stephenson was “real down” when he rejoined the Pacers, he still lifted his teammates — and the fans — with his raw enthusiasm and bravado. He was like a dose of an energy drink, providing a jolt for a decaf team that admitted to needing it. He enjoys having that role, but would prefer to have company next season.

“We just need that competitive edge,” he said. “We’ve got the guys, we just need that competitive edge. We’ve got to get mad. No one gets mad, no one puts that fight all the way into the game to win the game. I feel like that’s all we need. We need guys who want to win.”

Stephenson figures to improve the odds that Paul George will stick around to be part of that winning effort. With George set to become a free agent after the 2017-18 season, he and Stephenson haven’t talked with one another about their future, but they stayed in touch during Stephenson’s three-year “exile” from the Pacers and their on-court and off-court chemistry remains.

“I feel like we push each other,” Stephenson said. “I want it to continue that way. Stay positive with each other and move forward.

“We already know we need each other. We ain’t got to talk about it.”

Stephenson’s fourth order of business, then, will be to regain the game he had when he left the Pacers in free agency three years ago. He was the runner-up for the Most Improved Player award and nearly earned selection to the All-Star game in the 2013-14 season, and plans to get back to that level and beyond. He’s more grounded and mature now, and at 26 years old should have several productive seasons ahead of him.

“I had all the fun I can possibly have in the three years I was gone,” he said. “Right now I’m focused on my body and coming back to that All-Star level.”

He’s no longer Born Ready. He’s Reborn Ready.

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Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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