“I’m going to be truthfully honest, Lance is a great player for us,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “He’s still young. This is really his rookie season despite the years he has. He’s playing constant minutes this year.”
Outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stephenson is still a relatively unknown basketball player. Before these Eastern Conference finals, most Heat fans (and players) really only knew him as the bench warmer who made the universal sign for choking when James missed a key free throw in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Stephenson’s stature around the league — not to mention his confidence on the court — has grown steadily throughout the 2013 playoffs.
His effort in Game 6 against the Knicks (25 points and 10 rebounds) propelled the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals and he has continued to emerge against the defending champions.
He is averaging 11.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game in the series, and on Tuesday, outplayed his Heat counterpart, Wade.
“He has to grow up and continues to grow,” Hibbert said. “He’s being thrown into the fire having to guard D-Wade and LeBron.”
And he seems to be enjoying the heat, and the Heat.
Stephenson begged Pacers coach Frank Vogel to let him guard James after teammate Paul George found himself in foul trouble. Vogel granted the request (really he had no better option) and Stephenson went to work with his mind games on James.
James’ three-pointer over Stephenson with 1:20 to play cut the Pacers’ lead to 94-92, but Stephenson answered on Indiana’s following possession with a tough shot from eight feet that ran the Pacers’ lead back to four points.
James caught Stephenson’s made basket as it dropped through the cylinder, slammed it back into the hardwood and screamed with frustration. Seconds later, he fouled out of the game setting an illegal screen against Stephenson.
“I didn’t believe it was an offensive foul,” James said. “I was going to set a screen, and it felt like I was stationary. … Lance actually ran into me.”