The Pacers’ Growing Wingspan – Paul George and Lance Stephenson Engulf Knicks
Fifty-three points. Eleven Rebounds. Seven Assists. A shot chart that looks like this:
And a 28-point victory over a New York Knicks team that had road wins in San Antonio and Dallas and a home win over the Heat over the last two weeks. A Knick team that appeared to have gotten the ship righted with winning six of their last eight games.
That’s what the wings, Paul George and Lance Stephenson, did for your Indiana Pacers tonight.
What Paul George did was certainly a surprise to no one. We’ve become accustomed to Superstar performances from Indiana’s newest Superstar. Before the game, Coach Frank Vogel talked about Paul’s work ethic and its impact on his Pacer teammates.
“I think the stories that he heard over and over again from Brian Shaw about Kobe Bryant’s work ethic and day-to-day approach to everything you encounter — all the ups and downs — I think really laid a foundation for who Paul wanted to be,” Vogel said. “When you have your best player carrying out his business that way, it certainly carries over to Lance, and everyone in the locker room.”
George scored 25 points – a figure that would have been headline grabbing little more than 12 months ago. This season, it’s just one of 14 nights that he’s done it. That figure matches the 14 that the fourth-year player out of Fresno State had in his first three seasons and 206 games. Also commonplace was the defense he played on Carmelo Anthony. After scoring 18 points in his first 12 minutes, Anthony could manage only 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting in his final 20. Paul George was on the floor every minute Melo was.
But while PG was delivering what has become typical All NBA performance, Lance may have delivered the best game we’ve ever seen from him. Stephenson has had three triple doubles this season – flirting with more. He was splendid in a 26-point performance in Brooklyn just before Christmas. But this game…these 28 points, 4 boards, and 4 dimes…it was on a different level.
In the first half, Lance eviscerated the Knicks defense, scoring 13 of his 17 points during a second quarter where the Pacers smothered the Knicks, 33-17, taking control of the game. Stephenson got to the restricted areas six times in the first half, scoring each and every time. The Knicks as a team only got seven RA attempts in the half.
“He played like an All Star,” Paul George stated simply. “He played like a real player on the rise in this league. If he keeps that confidence, it’s going to be something special later down the line.”
Lance is a volatile player. “Taking the good with the bad” is a common refrain regarding Stephenson among both his coaches and teammates. Tonight, there was only the good to take.
“One of my assistants, I forget who it was, came into shootaround today, he says, ‘Boy, I wish I had Lance’s energy every day,’” Vogel laughed after the game. “That’s every day. Every day. He loves the game. He loves being around our culture and our team. He’s a positive influence on our positivity, and our culture, and the fun that we have.”
Energy. That’s Lance. That…and an edge.
“His competitive spirit is high as anyone that we’ve ever coached,” Vogel said. “He never wants to lose. He’s not always going to play great, but he always brings energy, and he’s always going to bring an edge.”
Vogel likes what he’s seeing. “He’s efficient. He’s making the right basketball plays. If he’s being flashy, he’s being flashy while making the right play. He’s guarding on the defensive end. He’s playing the game the right way. He’s honoring all of our principles. He’s growing — developing — and it’s a fun thing to watch.”
His wingmate wasn’t short of praise, either. “He’s full of energy,” George explained. “You give him a basketball, he has the ability to do so many things with it. There are times when we’re dead, the arena’s dead, he knows how to get everybody back active and into a game. That might be his best attribute and best skill: the ability to put on a show and still maintain game. ”
Lance brought two things in abundance with him to Indiana – talent and baggage. Since a disappointing fall from “Born Ready” to second round pick, Lance Stephenson has put in tremendous work to remake himself. But he’s also found unexpected blessings in the Circle City. The Brooklyn native has been unbelievably fortunate to come to a franchise where he had Larry Bird to believe in and mentor him. Where he had David West and George Hill to guide him. Where he had Frank Vogel and Brian Shaw to teach him.
And where he had Paul George to grow with.
“Me and Lance both came in together,” Paul said when asked if he felt he was becoming a role model to Lance and his other teammates. “We’ve both worked hard together. He’s here every summer putting in work. I come back to work out here. I think he’s seen the payoff. He’s seen what can happen with the hard work and staying dedicated to this organization. I think that’s just been the best thing for him. He’s just grown from every angle, I feel like. It’s good to see.”
It is good to see. And when the two of them play together the way they did tonight, it’s so easy to see so much more. Games like tonight, you begin to see things — hope for things — you are simply afraid to utter out loud. They are too crazy…too hyperbolic…to be given voice. But the future is the future, and while it holds promise, it is a notorious promise breaker. Enjoy the now, because the now is so special.
So very special.