The Indiana Pacers face an uphill climb and have a lot to worry about following their Game 3 loss to the Heat, which gives Miami a 2-1 advantage. One thing the Pacers don’t have to worry about, however, is the swagger of their starting shooting guard. The big stories regarding Pacers players have rightfully centered on Paul George and Roy Hibbert, but Lance Stephenson is definitely the team leader for number of times he has irrationally thought “If everybody clears out, I’ve got this”.
This can have some interesting effects on the team. In Game 2, Stephenson’s dedication to the idea that he has to take over the game from time to time led to several poor decisions and frustrated teammates as the Pacers tried to close out a difficult road win in Miami. At other times his mania has led to fast break success as the defense struggles to keep up with him darting down the court following a steal or miss. And Stephenson likes to push the ball, numbers or not.
All of the confidence has its price, and it has shown in this series. Stephenson has shot only 8-32 in the first three games, including two separate 2-10 performances in the two losses. He was the only player with a positive plus-minus in Game 3, but that stat is very fickle in one game sample sizes, so too much shouldn’t be read into it.
What should be examined is how his presence on the court is such a mixed bag. The closest comp that comes to mind is Josh Smith, but shorter. Stephenson is one of those guys that can give an entire fanbase heartburn, then make it all better with one spectacular play. On the balance, he probably isn’t quite a plus yet, and definitely hasn’t been throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.
The most relevant question for head coach Frank Vogel regarding Stephenson right now is “Are there any other options?” to which the answer is no. Gerald Green and Sam Young aren’t giving anything more, and occasionally are giving a whole lot less, than Stephenson, so good or bad, Indiana will continue to start him. This is one of the many trickle down effects of losing Danny Granger.
The key to Stephenson’s success, now and in the future, will be his ability to channel the intensity and confidence he brings into the team concept. At the moment that isn’t happening, and it’s leading to situations like this:
Yes, that is Stephenson in the corner guarded by LeBron James. Yes, that is Stephenson waving off his teammates so he can go one-on-one against the best player in the world. And yes, it ended about as well as you can expect, with a badly missed jumper.
It would be one thing if this was a one-off incident, but the exact same thing happened in Game 2, except it was at the top of the key. What Stephenson needs to learn is context. For instance, if LeBron has picked him up on a switch, that means he isn’t guarding Paul George. This could mean that anything from Wade guarding George (slight advantage Pacers) to much crazier mismatches, like Chalmers on David West or Hibbert (automatic two points for the Pacers). The best play for his team is not going to be trying to break down James in space, and it probably never will be.
Once (or if) he figures things like this out, Stephenson’s swagger will be a major asset to his team.