'He’s a legend here': Lance Stephenson scores 30, injects an energy the Pacers have been without
The Fieldhouse was electric Wednesday night for his return and as he scored 20 straight points in the first quarter.
Expect anything different?
Of course Lance Stephenson had some magic left. Those superpowers are there each time he puts on a Pacers uniform.
He saw and heard a standing ovation as he entered the game Wednesday night, playing inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse and in front of Pacers fans for the first time since April 27, 2018.
He heard the “Let’s Go Lance!” chants.
And he heard “M-V-P” chanted during his only visit to the free throw line. He made both shots.
But what he did in the first quarter was unbelievable, it was unexpected and fans were loving it. Playing in his third game in four days, Stephenson came off the bench with 6:23 to play. The first time he brought the ball up, he stopped at the top of the arc and pulled.
Then Stephenson made from 16 feet, from 21 feet, a layup, another 3-pointer, another layup and finished it off with a step-back 3-pointer as the first quarter expired.
He scored 20 points in a row.
“I teared up, man,” a former team employee texted. “That was beautiful.”
You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“I was energized (that) I couldn’t even sleep last night,” he said after scoring 30 points, the most he’s scored in 301 career games as a Pacer. “I was definitely excited for this game. I just knew the fans was gonna come out and make me feel welcome. When you’re playing in front of a crowd that’s welcoming you, it’s amazing. I just had to go out and show out.”
Never before had Stephenson even scored 20 in a half. He became the first player to come off the bench and score 20 points in the opening period.
“He was tremendous,” said head coach Rick Carlisle. “I was really happy for Lance.”
There was reaction from across the league. The one thing that would have put it over the top is if LeBron James, on his off night, posted something about Stephenson’s showing. He’s a basketball fanatic so you know he was watching.
Reunited for the third time, Stephenson is back in his safe space, back where he’s most comfortable and empowered to be himself. Carlisle recognizes that Stephenson is best at playing point guard and with the ball in his hands. It wasn’t so obvious to coaches elsewhere.
What most people wrongly assume is that he’s a bad locker room guy and causes trouble. That’s not at all the case. He’s a team guy, lightens the mood off the court and brings unmatched intensity on it.
But you don’t know about The Lance Stephenson Experience in Indiana until you’ve experienced it. Before deciding last Thursday to bring him back on a 10-day, as I first reported here, Carlisle asked Kevin Pritchard, the president of basketball operations, what he should know about him.
“He’s got a real connection and a real magical thing with our fans,” Pritchard told him.
Myles Turner wrote “Welcome back big bro!” on Instagram before the news was even official from the team. He and Domantas Sabonis are the only two Pacers who played with him in 2018. The coaching staff is completely different. Only the training staff, Stephenson’s favorite, was unchanged.
It’s been a journey back here, one that almost happened two years ago right before the pandemic. He played over in China, in the G League and then for Nate McMillan and the Hawks on a 10-day.
“I think people will appreciate the professionalism, the complete pro that he’s become right now,” his skills trainer, Rob Blackwell, told me on the podcast. “He’s gone through some tough things, he’s had to swallow his pride to play in the G League and he’s willing to do it; he was excited to do it, which tells you how much he’s come personally.”
Situation and fit are most important, yet often overlooked. Indiana checks the boxes and brings the best out of him. “This is a blessing,” he said. “I just never gave up, always stuck with it and believed in myself.”
This was a night Pacers fans won’t forget because it made them feel again. Forget that the Brooklyn Nets overcame a 19-point deficit and prevailed 129-121, Stephenson gave them a reason to smile, a reason to celebrate and a reason to enjoy games again.
“This is home,” Stephenson has said countless times. He didn’t just keep his home on the north side, but it is home when he’s out of season. His parents and family are here. So yes, it’s like playing in front of family.
Before the game, he was captured on camera seeing Nancy Leonard, the wife of the late Slick Leonard. He went right over, gave her a hug and listened to what she had to say. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get to to hear “Oh Lancey” from Slick or his reaction during the first-quarter madness.
Stephenson, now 31, hasn’t lost an ounce of his love for the game. He’ll play anywhere anytime. He even wore an old pair of AND1 sneakers.
However, he has grown quite a bit since 2018, gained an understanding of how to be a pro and he’s shelved the antics (but not the air guitar). His competitive spirit isn’t going anywhere, though.
He’s just different in a Pacers uniform. He’s like Clark Kent and puts on his cape. It’s why it remains baffling that he chose to leave not once, but twice. That won’t happen again.
“The game is just more comfortable here, making the right plays and having fun out there,” he said. “It’s all about having fun, not thinking too much.”
The Pacers and fan base alike could use more fun. It’s a reserved team that lacks an identity, leadership and good health. The roster is flawed and an overhaul is nearing, but Stephenson plays with a spirit that makes games fun again.
So it was a magical night that Pacers fans needed. That Lance needed. It was bigger than the game.
The NBA and ESPN social media accounts were posting multiple videos from a Pacers game. ESPN’s news desk had someone on the postgame Zoom session to record what Stephenson said.
I can’t remember that happening after any of the previous 38 games.
I had several friends text me about their experience watching, one losing his voice at the game and another having a blast while watching on his iPhone and putting his kids to bed.
“That was the most fun we’ve had at a Pacers game since the playoff days against the Heat (in 2014),” one friend texted. “We were high-fiving other fans around us when he scored. It gave us a reason to care and feel passion.”
The atmosphere was electric. The only thing lacking was a fairytale ending with Stephenson scoring a career-high — he finished with 30 points, three points shy of his career mark from 2016 — and the Pacers having enough to hold off the Nets, who have at least three Hall of Famers on their roster.
He’s on a 10-day contract, but Stephenson should be here to stay. The Pacers should offer him another two-year contract with a team option for next season, just as they did in March 2020 before the pandemic hit.
He’s their best option at point guard, especially while Malcolm Brogdon (for a sore right Achilles) and T.J. McConnell (right hand rehab) are sidelined. When Brogdon plays, move him to shooting guard where he can play off the ball and in a similar role to when he was in Milwaukee and recored a 50-40-90 season.
Stephenson provides energy first, but he’s also the best passing guard on the team and creates problems in pick-in-rolls for opponents. He can also create. Stephenson and Sabonis picked up right where they left off almost four years ago.
“I’ve missed it,” Sabonis, whose triple-double (32-12-10) was overshadowed, said with a big smile. “That’s my guy. We have a good pick-and-roll connection. I was telling him, ‘Be aggressive, do what you do and I’m going to be there.’”
After playing on back-to-back nights, the Pacers have Thursday off. And while I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stephenson picked up his usual order at the downtown Hooters after the game: 30 breaded wings in Samurai Teriyaki sauce and with lots of ranch.
Because on this night, it was just like old times.
“He’s a legend here, everybody loves him,” Sabonis continued. “We knew the fans were gonna go crazy when he came back. We love him, everyone else loves him here so it’s really fun to have him back.”