Blame the schedule makers. The bad blood between the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls held no meaning for either team, especially as the Pacers rested light injuries involving Danny Granger and Leandro Barbosa. Just don't tell Lance Stephenson it was a meaningless game as the second year guard, in his first NBA start, exploded for a career high 22 points on 10-15 shooting.
For the Pacers, who needed big games in order to come through in this one, Lance was in no way gun shy about looking for his shot as Paul George struggled with his shot, and the Bulls interior defenders really kept the Pacers away from Roy Hibbert and the paint in general. Both the Pacers and Bulls rolled out their offenses to start the game; unfortunately, timely shooting really had Chicago on a tear the blue and gold couldn't keep pace with.
When the game turned into a festival of jump shots (with Darren Collison scorching the nets early), it was only a matter of time before the Pacers went ice cold, as they dropped in only two points in the first six minutes, while Chicago pushed the lead to 15 points. The starters returned to salvage what they could of a disastrous second quarter offensively, but the team's inability to get stops on a Chicago team that was just plain hitting shots meant the lead held strong in double figures.
Out of the half, the Pacers shot off a 9-0 run to draw the game within six, but as per the story of the night, when Indiana found rhythm offensively, their defense slacked and gave Chicago a good enough look as they routinely sank jumper after jumper. Stephenson had 12 of his 22 in the fourth quarter, and the Pacers needed every single point to stay within striking distance of the Bulls, who were paced by a scorching Kyle Korver to nip every Pacers run right at its source.
Given the Pacers being short handed and getting little "average" production from anyone short Lance Stephenson and a solid outing from A.J. Price, that they still hung within the game and could've had a shot to win had they just been a little better with decision making down the stretch and a little more focused on the defensive end has to at least give you a positive feeling. In a game that ultimately had no bearing on the regular season outcome, it's a little easier to relax and not be terribly concerned about the outcome of games, even if they are games against the Chicago Bulls.
Elsewhere in the NBA, the Orlando Magic managed to pull out a win against the now historically bad Charlotte Bobcats, clinching their spot as the Eastern Conference's sixth seed. The Magic beat Charlotte on 14 three pointers, while grabbing 15 offensive boards (a vast majority of those coming off of jumpers). If there are two areas of concerns for the Pacers, there may be the two biggest. For a team that will not be quiet about jacking up 30+ three pointers in each of the games, Indiana will need to be heavily focused on something that's been a continuous weakness.
Before the regular season wraps up, one where the Indiana Pacers finish 42-24, their fifth best winning percentage in their NBA history, it's worth looking back more on Lance Stephenson's game tonight. For a guy who's really gotten the short end all year, somewhat justified for his on the court play, Stephenson really showed up and played tremendously when he was given his opportunity. Lance has struggled to even score points all season, so it was a real treat to see him jump in and drop 22, and doing so on a confident jumper that was raining in all night.
While he did play exceptionally well on both sides (aside from those Kyle Korver covers...), remain calm and don't overreact. It's a positive sign moving forward that Lance has pieced together a quality game, but for now, it's just that. The next step for Lance is to keep working and be ready if his name comes up at any point in the postseason. If not, he could be a key addition to next year's squad. Given Lance's growth as an adult this season, there can't be a single person who doesn't want to see that growth translate likewise on the basketball court.
Even with the shortened schedule, it's hard to believe this season was plagued by a lockout at one point. The Pacers have been a wonderful surprise in the league and with fans, creating one of the most exciting seasons in Pacers history, a team on pace to win 50 games in a regular season. But even though recent years have been lean, Indiana fans should be a spoiled bunch, knowing that when you win in the regular season, it deserves to be followed up with postseason wins. Indiana will begin the second season hosting the Orlando Magic. Playoff basketball is finally beginning!