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After he signed a three-year, $12 million contract to return to the Indiana Pacers, Lance Stephenson was asked what sort of response he expected to receive when he took the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to begin his second tour of duty in Indianapolis. He offered an eyebrow-raising response.
“It’s gonna probably be like Michael Jordan coming back to play in the NBA or something like that,” he said. “Somebody coming out of retirement. I know the atmosphere’s going to be crazy.”
On one hand, that seemed like an awfully high bar to set. This is, after all, a player who turned down a five-year, $44 million offer to leave Indianapolis of his own accord in free agency, and whose exit helped hasten the decline of a Pacers team that had made consecutive Eastern Conference finals. Not to mention one who had seen his career crater since his departure, as he turned in perhaps the worst shooting season in NBA history to prompt a trade away from Carolina that kickstarted a nomadic romp through four teams in less than two seasons prior to returning to the embrace of once-and-future benefactor Larry Bird.
On the other … well, the man was right:
Stephenson replaced Monta Ellis with 4:09 remaining in the first quarter on Tuesday night, with the Pacers’ trailing the Toronto Raptors by eight points. The crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse reacted like the Holy Ghost had ripped off his warmups.
In his first stint at home in Pacers gold since the 2014 Eastern Conference finals, Stephenson’s impact was similarly spectral. He missed his first four shots, committed a foul and looked a little tentative as he worked to find his rhythm.
“Lance was real excited, real fired up about this one,” Pacers star Paul George told Fox Sports Indiana’s Jeremiah Johnson after the game. “You could see it. I know Lance, man. Being with Lance for three or four years, I know Lance, man. He was nervous. That first half, he was nervous.”
The whole Indy squad seemed skittish through the first two quarters. Seven Raptors scored at least five points in the first two quarters to stake Toronto to a 19-point lead midway through the second and an 11-point edge at intermission.
And then, the second half started, and the Pacers — led by their All-Star and their prodigal son — woke up.
Two nights after going toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot with LeBron James in a double-overtime thriller, George once again showed out. He scored 18 points in the third quarter on 6-for-8 shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range. DeRozan stepped up to meet the challenge, pouring in 20 points of his own in the frame. But the rest of the Raptors contributed just four points in a sleepy third, allowing the Pacers to roar back from a double-digit deficit to take a 77-75 lead into the fourth … thanks, in part, to Indy suddenly seeming to have an extra snarl whenever a certain shooting guard took the floor:
In the fourth quarter, Stephenson started coupling his intensity and intangibles with actual production, too. He showcased the off-the-bounce playmaking and occasional shooting touch that helped turn him into such a valuable piece of what the Pacers used to be:
Stephenson scored all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter, including two big 3-pointers to keep the Raptors at bay and help ice a 108-90 win. George turned in another sensational effort, finishing with 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 40 minutes of work. The Pacers improved to 38-40, moving a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat in the race for the East’s final playoff spot, and now own the same record as the seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls (who top the Pacers via a superior record within the Central Division).
The Pacers came all the way back from 19 points down to win by 18 thanks to a completely dominant second half. They hung 68 points on a Raptors defense that’s been one of the five stingiest in the NBA since the All-Star break, and held the Raps to just 39 points on 39.5 percent shooting after intermission.
“Man, effort, energy, Lance Stephenson,” George told Johnson after the game. “That’s how you describe that second half: Lance Stephenson […] It took him to the second half to get that one to go down, and you saw it immediately. The doors was open.”
After Raptors forward P.J. Tucker missed a 3-pointer with just under 10 seconds remaining, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young pulled down the rebound and shoveled the ball over to George. Rather than just dribbling the clock out, George fired a pass out to Stephenson, who’d leaked out ahead of the Raptors defense. Rather than just dribbling the clock out, Stephenson swooped in for a layup to put Indiana up 107-90 with 3.3 seconds left.
The Raptors — most notably DeRozan, Tucker and guard Cory Joseph, who appeared to try to hit Stephenson with the ball when he inbounded it — did not appreciate that.
DeRozan and Tucker pressed up on Stephenson, who just ducked his head and walked away. The distemper spread to the rest of the teams, as the veteran Tucker kept jawing with players on the Pacers bench.
Stephenson, Tucker and DeRozan all received technical fouls. Both coaches subbed out their rosters to avoid any further shenanigans, and the game ended.
Asked about Stephenson’s final bucket, George kind of declared that you had to hear both sides.
“I mean, Lance know better,” he told Johnson with a smile. “That’s like a cardinal rule, to not lay the ball up when you up. But, um, he did it. It’s the reason why Lance is Lance. We appreciate him, man, everything he does for this organization. He comes out here and he works his butt off.”
George stepped in to take the heat in the winning locker room:
Pacers coach Nate McMillan suggested that Stephenson just got caught up in the moment …
… which is how Stephenson described it in apologizing to the Raptors:
The Raptors do not seem eager to accept Lance’s apology.
For the second time in three days, we’ve got ourselves an Unwritten Rules of Blowouts debate! While the specifics differ slightly between this case and JaVale McGee shooting a 3-pointer with a 22-point lead, the general point remains the same: the unwritten rules say you’re not supposed to pad the lead and your stats by shooting in the dying seconds of a long-since-decided game.
There is, of course, a pretty reasonable counter-argument that seems especially appropriate in this instance:
Whether or not the Raptors find wisdom in that particular statement, it did seem in the second half of Tuesday’s game like the Pacers had found something in their post-Lance shuffle — the sense of urgency and “winning pride” that has been missing for a large chunk of this season. George, for his part, attributed that to the re-emergence of Indiana’s emotional firestarter.
“Every play, man, you’re going to get the most — you’re going to get the best out of him,” he said. “He’s going to work hard. He’s going to energize you. If there’s something that you ain’t doing, he’ll tell you. And he’s just been my brother, man. We started out in this league, we started here together. That’s my brother, and I’m just happy to have him back here.”
After a wild Tuesday homecoming, that much we can safely say: Lance Stephenson, and everything that comes with him, is back in Indiana. Whether or not that really is exactly what the Pacers need, though, remains to be seen.
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