Lance Stephenson, just before things went bad. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)
Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel announced Friday that shooting guard Lance Stephenson has been ruled out for Friday night's nationally televised matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers with a lower back injury sustained during a nasty fall during Indy's 89-85 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday.
Stephenson suffered the injury with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter, when an explosive drive to the rim for a layup went haywire after he flew over Hawks forward Paul Millsap:
Stephenson appeared to be in serious pain from the moment he hit the floor after finishing the ludicrous lay-in, yowling and immediately reaching for his lower back after careening to the deck, slapping the floor and taking his time before making an effort to get back to his feet. He stayed in the game, making his and-one free throw, missing a 3-pointer and grabbing a rebound over the next few minutes, but he clearly wasn't right; Vogel inserted C.J. Watson for Stephenson with four minutes left in the third, and the Brooklyn-born shooting guard didn't return, finishing 10 points, four rebounds, two assists, a steal and six turnovers in 23 minutes of playing time.
The Pacers held Stephenson out of practice on Thursday, terming him "day-to-day" with a bruised lower back that kept the 23-year-old tossing and turning, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"The pain. Certain movements really hurt me," said Stephenson [...] "I couldn't sleep at all last night. Just got to do yoga right now and try to move and just try to get ready for the game [Friday]." [...]
Stephenson said in the split-second of losing his balance, he knew that if he had extended his arm instead of taking the impact of the fall on his back, the injury could have turned out worse.
"I would've broke my arm," Stephenson said. "I tried to do like a little flip so I can protect my balance at the same time. So, I'm just happy I fell the way I did."
While a sore back is certainly preferable to a broken arm (or, for that matter, a broken neck), it will leave Vogel without his starting two-guard for just the second time this season, which figures to upset the Pacers' rotation. Stephenson has been a key part of Indiana's six most-used five-man units, including the starting five (with Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West and George Hill) that's logged the third-most minutes of any five-man group in the NBA this season, behind only the starting lineups of Friday night's opponents, the Blazers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. That top Indy group's been an absolute wrecking ball, too, outscoring opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions (second-best in the league among units that have played more than 250 minutes together, behind only the Golden State Warriors' #FullSquad) and allowing just 92.9 points-per-100, the stingiest defense among such lineups.
With Stephenson on the shelf, the Pacers will turn to former All-Star Danny Granger to move from the bench back into the starting lineup. After missing the first 24 games of the season with left leg injuries that cost him most of the 2012-13 season, Granger has struggled to knock off the rust and regain his scoring touch, averaging 8.6 points in 22.2 minutes per game on 36 percent shooting, including a 32.1 percent mark from 3-point range, in 23 appearances. He's shown some signs of life lately, including a 16-point, four-rebound, three-assist outing in a Monday win over the Orlando Magic, but the Pacers have yet to hit their stride when playing him alongside the other four starters — the Hibbert-George-West-Granger-Hill unit has been outscored by 31 points in 45 shared minutes, shooting under 39 percent from the floor and letting opponents score at a clip that would far outpace even the best offenses in the league; this seems like bad news with the Blazers' No. 2-ranked offense coming to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday in a rematch of one of the best games of the first half of the NBA season, which the Blazers won in Portland back in December.
As part of the rotation juggle, Vogel said Friday he'd look to reserve wings Rasual Butler and Solomon Hill to pick up Granger’s bench slack, and could roll with more multiple point-guard sets featuring some combination of Hill, Watson and little-used third-stringer Donald Sloan to make up for the absence of Stephenson's secondary ball-handling.
The Blazers will be down a member of their backcourt rotation, too. Backup point guard Mo Williams will miss Friday's game for personal reasons; his sister has been ill of late, according to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. Veteran reserve Earl Watson could see some time in Williams' stead.
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