Lance Stephenson brought fun back to the Indiana Pacers tonight, helping them to snap their six game losing streak at home against the Utah Jazz. The Pacers didn’t trail tonight after the first quarter, but not for lack of trying on Utah’s behalf. The Jazz had opportunities throughout the second half to take control, but the Pacers found ways to execute and respond each and every time.
That was in no small part due to Stephenson’s impact. The Pacers trailed 20-15 when he entered the game midway through the first, immediately putting his stamp on the game by scoring, assisting, or setting up the next nine points. He finished the first quarter with four assists, finding both Oshae Brissett and Domantas Sabonis at the end of the first for three pointers that put Indiana ahead 33-27.
The lead was eight when Stephenson exited, but the Pacers didn’t miss a beat, extending the lead into double figures. Duane Washington Jr. connected on a pair of threes and Myles Turner boasted an impressive defensive half, blocking three shots and limiting Utah’s success around the rim.
All of that success didn’t want to last for the Pacers, however. After extending the lead to 16, Utah ran off the next nine, prompting a timeout from Rick Carlisle to settle his guys down. Upon return, Chris Duarte scored and the Pacers settled down enough to at least keep the game at nine heading into the break, ultimately giving Indiana the second quarter victory.
The Pacers pushed the game back out to double figures and again Utah responded, scoring 12 straight this time to make it a one-point game at 70-69 halfway through the third. Indiana held firm though, with Stephenson and Duarte each pitching in to keep them in the lead, the lead feeling incredibly precarious behind the tremendous play of Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The most breathing room Indiana found down the stretch in the third came on a Sabonis bucket with 43 seconds remaining, putting them on top heading into the fourth 90-86. An ugly start to the fourth initially favored the Pacers, extending the lead out to seven on a three point play, but Jordan Clarkson quickly cut into the advantage with five straight of his own.
Clarkson kept it a one possession game by the time Mitchell returned, the Pacers leading by just two. Jeremy Lamb scored four straight to inch the lead back up to four, but there wasn’t much in the way of a rhythm when Sabonis and Stephenson checked back in. Sabonis immediately shifted things in Indiana’s favor, blocking Hassan Whiteside in transition and extending the lead to six on a dunk assist from Stephenson.
After Mitchell scored, Holiday checked in for Lamb, immediately hitting back-to-back threes to extend the lead back out to double figures. Keifer Sykes then followed a Washington Jr. miss in impressive fashion, getting well into the air for the putback. Mitchell would do everything in his power to will the Jazz back into it, but the Pacers refused to relent, closing out Utah for the 125-113 victory.
The Pacers outscored Utah 28-18 down the stretch, including 10-12 from the line in the final eight minutes. That’s worth noting because one of the bigger reasons the Pacers were in such a close game with the Jazz to that point was due to a rough night at the line, having missed seven on 19 attempts heading into the fourth.
That was really the only blemish on the night for a Pacers team that played extremely well throughout the game. The two Utah runs in the second and third quarters may have made fans a bit anxious, but there was no quit in Indiana tonight, in large part to Stephenson. As Indiana was closing out the win, it looked like they were out there having fun for the first time in quite a while, a welcome sight for a team that’s been so astronomically bad late in games.
Stephenson finished the night with another milestone, handing out a career best 14 assists. Ten of those went to Sabonis, a lethal connection that had the Jazz overwhelmed all night. Stephenson spoke to that in the post-game interview, saying he knows Sabonis like the back of his hand and later saying he might get 40 every night.
Oh yeah, Sabonis had a career night of his own, finishing with 42 points. He hit his first 10 shots, which included a trio of three pointers before punishing the Jazz in the paint. He finished the night 18-22 overall. Stephenson was the second leading scorer, putting in 16 off the bench, getting a game high four steals in the process.
He was joined by Washington Jr. with 16. Washington Jr. went 3-7 from deep, hitting a team high five free throws. His work alongside Sykes continues to be a real jolt for the Indiana backcourt, with the fellow rookie scoring seven with five rebounds and four assists, notably playing tonight with his mom in attendance after having his contract guaranteed yesterday.
Off the bench, Duarte scored nine. He was joined by Lamb (who had five) in returning from the health and safety protocol. Duarte in particular was a bit rusty on his shot, but both guys had an extra hop in their step, which helped provide the Pacers with winning bench minutes alongside Oshae Brissett, who had seven.
The Pacers tallied 30 assists on the night, shooting 55% overall. Sabonis does skew that number significantly however with his 81.8% shooting night; the Pacers were at 44.8% without him, only Stephenson and Holiday shooting above 50%. Where Sabonis didn’t have so much weight in the percentages was from three point range, with Indiana shooting an efficient 14-29. Washington Jr. and Holiday hit half of those, going 7-13, both stepping into back-to-back threes at crucial points in the game to save the win.
Though it’s far too early to start talking about Stephenson’s impact salvaging a season circling the drain as he did back in 2017 when he first returned to help Indiana slide into a playoff spot, there was a unique life to the team that hasn’t been for large swaths of the season. That’s not to say it’s all Stephenson either. Sykes has been a vocal guy since he’s come aboard, often being the first one to help a teammate off the floor.
Those kinds of personalities might help the Pacers tap into something as they enter the second half of the season, but it also just as well might not, especially with a brutal West Coast trip looming a week from now. Before tipping off six games against Western Conference opponents, the Pacers will play a home and home with the Boston Celtics, who also find themselves searching for answers after a wealth of late game losses, starting Monday night.