For 18 minutes, the Indiana Pacers were well on their way to playing themselves out of playoff contention. After shooting just 25% in the first quarter, the listless Pacers stumbled well into the second, falling behind 45-26 against the Toronto Raptors. The Pacers were missing shots, sure, but the overall effort and energy was familiar, and not in the positive sense.
Despite playing one of their most depressing halves of the year, the Pacers somehow managed to close the gap to 11 at halftime at 51-40. Out of the half, however, the Pacers looked like a different team, hitting three straight threes as part of an 21-9 run to start the third quarter to push into the lead.
In the third, the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd was not only treated to a Pacers team worth cheering for, but a phenomenal back and forth battle between Paul George and DeMar DeRozan. The Pacers clawed their way to a 77-75 lead heading into the fourth despite 20 third quarter points from DeRozan. George meanwhile had 16, including three threes (and a four point play).
Then in the fourth quarter, it happened:
Lance breaks down the defense and dishes to Thad: pic.twitter.com/A070idT4MP— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) April 5, 2017
Lance Stephenson happened.
The guy who told Michael Grady that his return to the Fieldhouse would rival that of Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA (also in Indianapolis) put the Pacers on his back in the fourth quarter as Indiana completed a furious second half to get the most important win of the regular season thus far.
Stephenson scored all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter, not only dancing his way to three assists and a pair of rebounds, but hitting a pair of huge three pointers, including the final dagger with 94 seconds left. With the good came the bad as Lance did the most Lance thing imaginable, completing a meaningless layup with three seconds to go and the Pacers leading by 15.
The decision deserves to be criticized (though he did offer an apology after the game) as DeRozan and P.J. Tucker were quick to let Stephenson know they were none too thrilled about his unnecessary basket. At the same time, however, the unity the Pacers showed in defending Stephenson as he walked off the court was unlike anything they’ve shown as a team at any point this season.
There’s no doubt the Pacers benefited from the Lance Effect tonight, Stephenson was was vintage in the most positive sense, but he brought not only unity at the end, but excitement throughout the fourth quarter that the Pacers also haven’t shown often this season. The most visibly excited was Jeff Teague, who completed a 20 point, six assist night with the most passion he’s shown all season.
Within the scoring aspect of the game, the Pacers were led by George, who continued his elite level play with a 35 point, 10 rebound double double. If Stephenson hit the dagger with his three, George’s three to follow, his fifth of the night, made sure there was no chance of a comeback.
As a team, Indiana shot efficiently from three point range, hitting 12 on the night, which seemed far fetched when the early returns were a pile of bricks and the Pacers succumbing early to the three point shooting of Tucker and DeMarre Carroll, but would hold Toronto just 5-23 from deep for the night, a victory in and of itself after allowing 26 in the first two meetings.
Thaddeus Young continued his more efficient play of late with a 15 point, 11 rebound double double of his own. After concerns of Young’s wrist playing a part in his poor play through the rest of the season, seeing him play comfortably with it has been a huge boost. In fact, thanks to he and George, the Pacers actually outrebounded the Raptors.
Monta Ellis saw his minutes trimmed in the second half in the wake of Stephenson’s play, but played a big role in guiding Indiana back. All 10 of his points came in the midst of Indiana’s second/third quarter comeback, including a three that pushed the Pacers to within two. Myles Turner also hit a three, a crucial one in its own right, pushing Indiana’s six point lead to nine in the fourth, though Turner continues to struggle shooting, but he did pull in six rebounds.
The win is not only important in putting Indiana back into the 8th spot (at least temporarily with the Miami Heat idle), but it was a rare night where everything went Indiana’s way in the standings. The Hornets, Bulls, and Bucks all lost, putting the Pacers right back in the thick of things.
Indiana’s next opponent are the Milwaukee Bucks, who sit two games ahead of Indiana. A Pacers win at home would bring Indiana to within one game of the 5th seed, but they could still enter Thursday’s game in 9th place, keeping their need for a win at a do-or-die high. It will be a tall task; Milwaukee has dominated the matchup this season and Indiana hasn’t won back-to-back game in two months, but maybe, just maybe, the Pacers are being lifted on the Lance Effect.