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The Indiana Pacers have definitely put the league on notice and have more than proven that last year's late playoff run was no fluke.
Just a game away from their first NBA Finals appearance since Reggie Miller, the Davis boys and Rik Smits fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000, this group of Pacers have taken another step forward in their development and quest for the franchise's first NBA title and currently own the league's best record (33-7).
Head coach Frank Vogel, who clinched the Eastern Conference All-Star coaching spot early last week, has done a masterful job in incorporating their new players from the offseason and selling his defensive principles while preaching teamwork and competing at the highest level every single night.
Roy Hibbert, who is likely headed to the All-Star Game as well, has emerged as the top Defensive Player of the Year candidate and has anchored the Pacers' interior defense after putting in a lot of work in the offseason in building his strength.
The one guy that has surprisingly wowed fans and observers around the league with his improved play is fourth-year guard Lance Stephenson.
The 23-year-old New York native has become a crowd favorite at the Fieldhouse with his "in-your-face" playing style, energy and relentless transition game, all the while showing the maturation and consistency he wasn't known to possess in the past. Thanks to his stellar play, Stephenson is also in the discussion for Most Improved Player of the Year award.
Stephenson is averaging career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.2) and has played a major role for the NBA's best team. And if there were doubts left about his All-Star inclusion, especially coming from those who haven’t watched more than five Pacer games this season, Stephenson cemented his case with a career night on national TV in front of NBA on TNT audiences last week against the Knicks.
Stephenson scored a career-high 28 points to go with four boards and four assists, and put on an All-Star show all by his own that left arena fans with their jaws dropped as the Pacers starched the Knicks.
Against the Clippers a couple of days after, Stephenson went for another near triple-double with 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists (leads the league in triple-doubles with 3). And on the road against the Warriors, Monday night, Stephenson hit a dagger three in the final minute to seal the win for the Pacers while just being three assists short of another triple-double, yet again.
Tabbed to be a “head case” after some off the court issues coming out of college, few gave Stephenson a shot at an extended, successful NBA career. Prior to last season, Stephenson’s claim to fame were his sideline antics in the 2012 NBA Playoffs, wherein he gestured the “choke” from the bench at LeBron James who was shooting free throws at the end of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One person that did believe in Stephenson, however, is Pacers Team President, Larry Bird, who saw a diamond in the rough. Stephenson credits Bird for mentoring him and having faith in his abilities, which he says is a big reason for his success.
"He believed in me," Stephenson said of Bird. "He gave me the confidence that I could play in the league. Larry is a legend, and when he tells you that you can do this, and do that, it just boosts your confidence, makes you feel like no one can stop you."
Stephenson has indeed been a force to be reckoned with this season, and is a big reason for the Pacers’ amazing run so far. He could've easily fallen by the wayside like many other young inner city hoop stars before him that had baggage entering the league. Instead, Stephenson persevered and learned the NBA game while becoming and integral part of the Pacers' title hopes.
"Born Ready" is ready for the bright lights of New Orleans. Lance Stephenson is (easily) an NBA All-Star.
- DG -
- CHECK OUT my interview with Lance by clicking on the video above.