Lance Stephenson pairs well with Domas Sabonis, awakens this team and fan base
Sabonis scored a career-high 42 points, then praised Stephenson: "He has a swag that goes around that everyone wants to be part of."
Lance Stephenson has never lacked confidence. He’s from Coney Island and grew up playing on the playground there. If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re getting beat every time against the older boys who run the court.
He was drafted by the Pacers in 2010 40th overall despite having first-round talent, so he had something to prove. He wasn’t in the rotation, then played off the bench and with an edge. Then he played at an All-Star caliber level in 2014, went elsewhere in free agency and then again after the first reunion in 2017 and it didn’t work out.
When the Pacers reached agreement with him on a temporary role before the calendar turned to 2022, the Pacers weren't just looking to fill a roster spot or bring back a fan favorite temporarily. They were looking to to enhance the team and give it a boost. Because through losses, both on the court and in player availability due to injuries and Covid illnesses, it was a lifeless team.
It didn’t have an identity or personality. It was a bunch of good guys and not even an overhaul of the coaching staff altered the team’s determination or disposition, to use one of coach Rick Carlisle’s words. For all the faults and failures of the Nate Bjorkgren experience, this season has revealed that he wasn’t the only one at fault; it’s also a flawed roster that’s lacking — especially in personality.
Enter Stephenson, a 31-year-old vet who has matured, both personally and with his game, and awakened this team and its fan base.
Look again at the photo above. Every player on the bench was up and having a good time. Jeremy Lamb was as excited as you’ll see and Oshae Brissett couldn’t contain himself and wrapped his arms around teammate Nate Hinton. T.J. McConnell does the air guitar every time Lance does. These are the moments of growth and tell you a lot about the state of the team.
“Our bench hasn’t been this into the game in any game this year,” Carlisle continued. “It’s not that they’re not good guys, it’s just there hasn’t been the same kind of vibe. When this move was made (to bring back Lance), Kevin (Pritchard) told me ‘We need some personality, we need some energy. A lot of people are gonna roll their eyes at this.’
“I said, ‘I’m not rolling my eyes. I just want to know as much as I can about this guy so we can turn him loose and let him play his game.’ It’s been a great week.”
And credit Carlisle for doing just that. When Stephenson is in there, he’s the point guard and initiating the offense almost exclusively. He’s still getting to know Stephenson, but recognized immediately the relationship Stephenson has with the organization and fan base.
Three days after a 20-point first quarter and scoring 32 points in his return to The Fieldhouse, his highest total in over 300 games with the Pacers, Stephenson guided the team to a win Saturday night over the Utah Jazz (28-12). Off the bench, he scored 16 points and was most impressive with his distribution of the ball, ultimately tallying a career-high 14 assists.
His outburst led to Domantas Sabonis’ career night. He scored 42 points in the Pacers’ 125-113 win, which snapped a six-game losing streak, their longest of the season. (It’s the most points in a game for a Lithuanian player, surpassing Linas Kleiza, who scored 41 with Denver in 2008. Also against Utah.)
“They fit together,” Carlisle said. “Lance with the ball is a guy that can make a lot of things happen. He has the ability to be unpredictable yet under control. It just helps loosen things up for Domas and the rest of our team. The intriguing thing about Lance is that he’s so unselfish. It’s really a cool characteristic of him as a player and him as a person.
“He’s giver and he’s an energy giver too.”
Until Stephenson arrived, all most fans were concerned with was getting through the season and losing enough to finally secure a draft position inside the top 10 for the first time since 1989. Now, there’s an element of FOMO — not knowing what Stephenson may do each game and wanting to be part of it.