Something almost more surprising than Indiana’s 19-point come-from-behind victory happened on Tuesday night: There were fewer fans in attendance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the prodigal point wing’s return (16,524) than there were for last week’s business as usual meeting with the Minnesota Timberwolves (17,534). At-home observers never would have guessed it; however, because what the crowd lacked in numbers it more than made up for in spirit, especially when compared to the last time the Toronto Raptors rolled into town for an extended stay and attracted a slew of northern invaders.
Last April, “We the North” signs and Canadian flags were reportedly confiscated.
This April, the vast majority of the visible red in the stands belonged to patrons who were proudly bedecked in their Hickory gear.
Granted, there isn’t as much of an incentive for the Toronto faithful to make the effort to witness an end-of-season game against the possibly lottery-bound Indiana Pacers in person as there is for a closely contested first round playoff series, but the basic premise that Bankers Life Fieldhouse was awakened by Lance Stephenson still stands.
“He brought a lot of energy to the game, a lot of focus,” Thaddeus Young told the Indy Star’s Nate Taylor of Stephenson. “There was definitely a difference (in the crowd) from Lance coming back. He’s played a great deal of his career here and has gained a lot of respect from the fans. They love him. That’s one of the biggest things in this game. From the start, they welcomed him back and they were ready to cheer.”
The fans were overwhelmingly in his corner when he was introduced, and they stayed squarely in his corner through the good, some bad, and even a brief moment of ugly.
And there was some predictable bad of the not “excellent” variety, despite the electricity he restored to the building.
DeRozan ate Stephenson’s lunch at the end of the third quarter, pouring in 10 points (including two freebies) in under four minutes. Ball-watching also caused him to lose his man a time or two. Here, calling for an awkward switch led to Myles Turner being helplessly stranded out on the perimeter with Norman Powell.
Trying to find seams in the defense, understandably, proved challenging with Lavoy Allen at the four-spot.
(On a side note: Nate McMillan should definitely further explore staggering the rotation in order for the five-man unit of Stephenson, Aaron Brooks, Paul George, C.J. Miles, and Lavoy Allen to be able to see more minutes. That group is plus-five in Stephenson’s first two games with the team as opposed to minus-3.5 when Kevin Seraphin replaces George. It’s a minuscule sample size, but there’s an entire season worth of evidence that points toward Indiana’s bench being more functional with interchangeable forwards on the floor. In order to get the most out of Stephenson, he needs to be the primary ball-handler and he needs to be surrounded with as many shooters — Get well soon, Glenn Robinson III — as possible.)
Still, the Lance-effect undeniably mattered. Midway through the third quarter, even when he was on the bench — well, not actually physically sitting on the bench — his contagious energy contributed heavily to Paul George and the Pacers taking a one-point lead, 58-57.
While he was feeding off the crowd, his typically reserved teammates were feeding off of him. He eventually rewarded the fans for their loyalty. During the fourth quarter, he scored all twelve of his points (5-of-6) and managed to double the total number of threes he’d made in his 13 prior games this season (1) in a single frame (2).
Whether those 12 minutes are sustainable is, obviously, still to be determined. Fit issues, roster redundancy, and reservations about his ball-dominance linger, even more so if McMillan remains inflexible with regard to the double-plodder lineups. However, if Stephenson’s unbridled passion can produce the same results over a larger sample size with him on the floor on the road (where the Pacers are the equivalent of a lottery team and will open if they manage to hang onto a playoff berth) as it did with him actively on the bench at home then his intangible value-added as a hype man will continue to tangibly add value as an integral role player.