As the Indiana Pacers head into Game 5 against the Miami Heat, it must be asked: Does this series really ride on Lance Stephenson?
The answer is yes, and that's also why it's futile for anyone to try to predict what's going to happen as the NBA Eastern Conference finals come down to a best-of-three series with two games in Miami.
If the Pacers get Great Lance, the Pacers have a wild card unlike any other player, capable of driving and scoring on LeBron James, capable of running a fast break with deftness and vision and capable of drawing attention away from Roy Hibbert, who can then crash the boards with no rival.
With great Lance, the Pacers can indeed win this series.
If, however, the Pacers get Erratic Lance, they're looking at ill-advised and off the mark long-range jumpers with emotional outbursts and what looks like attention-deficit disorder.
With Erratic Lance, the Pacers aren't beating the Heat.
You'll have to tune in at 8:30 p.m. Thursday to see which Lance shows up.
“We can't continue on without him being productive and having a major impact on these games,” Pacers forward David West said.
West was among the Pacers players who called out Stephenson, in a supportive, big-brother way, after Stephenson had a poor game (2-for-10 shooting) in the Pacers' Game 3 loss at home. West recognizes Stephenson's fragile psyche, one that hasn't mastered the art of even-keel demeanor. (Actually, that might not even be a goal since a non-emotional Stephenson wouldn't rise to the heights he can on occasion.)
Hibbert, too, points out that the team believes in Stephenson even as it cajoles the best out of him.
Great Lance was on full display in the Pacers' 99-92 win in Game 4, with Stephenson scoring 20 points and hitting at least two memorable shots – a three-pointer in the corner to end the third quarter and a rising jump shot over a foul-plagued Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter.
“He knows he has to keep on evolving and improving,” Hibbert said. “We need him to win. When he plays like that, that's great. If he can harness this every single game he plays, there's no defense for that.”
When Stephenson is on, his already high confidence hits the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With Paul George expending energy and fouls trying to contain James, Stephenson volunteered for the defensive assignment.
While Pacers coach Frank Vogel cautioned not to make too much of Stephenson's defense against James, Stephenson's willingness to take on the best speaks about his competitive spirit. James, incidentally, smirked at the idea of Stephenson handling him one-on-one.
“Offensively, he played extremely well,” James said. “He attacked us. He got some offensive rebounds. He got one offensive rebound for a tip-back. I think he played well. He played really well. But if you are sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one matchup between me and Lance Stephenson, I'm not going to harp on that.”
Translation: James believes he can score anytime against Stephenson.
The fact remains that Stephenson's best games generally lead to good things for the Pacers, as happened when he came through in the series-clinching Game 6 against the New York Knicks. He scored 25 points with 10 rebounds in that game.
“When you see him in practice, he's saying 'Brooklyn, Brooklyn, get out of here,' ” Hibbert said of Stephenson evoking his hometown. “He has that little swag to him. (Tuesday), he brought it for us. Paul got in a little bit of foul trouble. (Stephenson) picked his game up. Hopefully, he can do that night in and night out.”
The Pacers face a daunting task, playing in Miami, but they have already won one game there and felt they should have won another. If they can continue to use Hibbert's size and West's strengths – two assets the Heat have a hard time countering – and George returns to some offensive punch, they'll have a chance to win in Miami again.
And yet the series could ride on how many times Great Lance shows up instead of Erratic Lance.
“When he's bad, we typically struggle,” Vogel said. “But when he's good, we're pretty darn good. I mean, that's the simplest way to put it, and it's very accurate, he's the barometer.”
Stephenson is thrilling to watch when he's on top of his game. But Pacers fans enter every game with the same approach when it comes to Stephenson: They cross their fingers and pray for greatness.