INDIANAPOLIS—When it comes to the currently-undefeated Pacers, it’s easy to focus on the likes of All-Star swingman Paul George or defensive anchor Roy Hibbert, even rugged power forward David West.
But the team’s unsung hero might be Lance Stephenson, as the Bulls witnessed Wednesday evening. Think of Stephenson as Indiana’s version of Jimmy Butler: a hard-nosed, athletic wing, capable of excelling on both sides of the ball and on certain nights, the biggest variable in the outcome of the game.
Stephenson had 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting, but it was his fourth quarter — in which he scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, including 2-for-3 from the 3-point line, as well as energized the crowd with his spirited play — that may have been the key element in the Pacers’ surge to end the game, close out the contest and run the Bulls out of town.
“Lance came in and hit a couple big buckets, and the momentum went to their side,” Derrick Rose said. “Lance, I think, played great for them tonight, knocking down shots and just playing hard.”
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That’s pretty much Stephenson’s M.O., at least the playing hard part. But whether or not Stephenson, a scorer by nature, makes shots, he’s learned how to consistently impact games with his defensive prowess, uncanny rebounding for a guard, underrated playmaking, energy and overall toughness.
“He’s improved. He stuck with it, the team has stuck with him and his talent is shining through,” said Bulls veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr., a teammate of Stephenson’s in Indiana during the latter’s rookie season, when many observers thought the second-round pick wouldn’t last in the NBA. “He’s done a really nice job. He brings a unique skill set for his size and position and he has been a big part of who they are.”
Raved Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau raved, obviously before the matchup: “Terrific.
“Each year he’s gotten better. He has great size and toughness. He plays hard on every play. He can play effectively with both units. He can start and play well or play well with the second unit,” he continued. “They have great versatility. Their wings have very good size.”
The second part of Thibodeau’s statement is important. With former All-Star small forward Danny Granger currently sidelined due to a calf injury — after missing all but five games last season because of a knee ailment — Pacers head coach Frank Vogel hasn’t had to make the tough decision of whether to keep Stephenson in the starting lineup, his role last season, when Indiana took the eventual-champion Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, or insert Granger to the role he once held, pushing George to shooting guard, arguably not his best position.
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“Who starts and who doesn’t is less important to me as who’s getting the most minutes and the way Lance is playing, Lance is going to get the bulk of the minutes,” Vogel said before the game. “If we decide to start Danny Granger, it will be because it just stretches the rotation out, to have a stronger bench. But certainly Lance, so far, has been one of our best players.”
Given that Stephenson is averaging 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, while shooting 53.8 percent from 3-point range for the 5-0 Pacers, it won’t make his decision easy, especially for Vogel, who has been the team’s head coach since Stephenson’s rookie year — first getting the job on an interim basis — and has seen the guard’s development up close.
“I love Lance Stephenson. I love having him on our team. I love the edge he brings to our team, the physicality, the toughness, the competitive spirit, we’ll call it,” he said in the preseason, when he also made comparisons to elite sixth men like New York’s J.R. Smith, San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili and the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford, without specifying either Granger or Stephenson for the potential role. “This time last year, he didn’t even know if he was a rotational player and by the end of last year, he was part of a five-man unit that was kicking everybody’s butt and he was a big part of it. He wasn’t just a fill-in. I love what he’s bringing to the table and eager to see what he’s going to do as a follow-up to last year.”
It looks like Stephenson, a favorite of team president Larry Bird and in a contract season, has quite the encore planned and with his demonstrative style on the court, it’s more than likely that he plays a major role in the remaining Bulls-Pacers regular-season matchups, and perhaps beyond.