INDIANAPOLIS – A little more than a month ago, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird acquired third-year forward Evan Turner from Philadelphia with the idea that he'd replace the oft-injured Danny Granger. As it turned out Wednesday, the former Ohio State star also showed that he can step in for the enigmatic Lance Stephenson.
Turner made a pair of late baskets to help lift the Pacers to a difficult 84-83 victory over defending NBA champion Miami in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,165 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“Evan did a great job stepping in for Lance,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “He made two huge plays.”
The fact that Turner had to “step in” is a problem for the Pacers moving forward, but being able to rely on a former NBA Draft lottery pick when Stephenson goes off the rails mentally is a luxury that few teams possess.
“We probably wouldn't win this game without Evan,” Vogel said.
With 5:02 remaining in the game, Stephenson showed just how talented and valuable he can be for the Pacers, as he drove through the teeth of the Heat defense and laid the ball in to put Indiana up 76-72. It was his second consecutive basket and part of a 13-2 Pacers run to overtake Miami. But one second later, Stephenson showed how irrationally emotional he can often be by celebrating his lay-in by glaring at Miami defender Dwayne Wade. Stephenson was assessed his second technical of the game and ejected.
“I didn't see the play,” Vogel said. “Lance can't get himself kicked out of a game, he's too important to us.
“He can't let that happen. Period.”
Stephenson brings an emotional intensity to every game, be it a fight for playoff home-court advantage against the best team in the world or a Tuesday night in Milwaukee in front of a half-empty arena. That's just who he is, and it can often be a valuable asset.
But in a game of this magnitude, with this intensity and physicality, Stephenson's mental state can be a detriment.
The Pacers desperately need to gain home-court advantage in the playoffs, and history shows that Indiana won't get past Miami if the road to the NBA Finals runs parallel to Florida State Road A1A. And beating the Heat without Stephenson and his versatile game is challenging. But after witnessing Turner's steady play over the course of the final five minutes Wednesday, Pacers fans can think of him as a disaster relief insurance policy, with the disaster being a mental meltdown from Stephenson.
Turner wasn't the star of Wednesday's victory, which clinched the Pacers' second straight Central Division title. That honor goes to Paul George. And David West. And Roy Hibbert.
George had the defensive chore of guarding Miami star LeBron James much of the night, and he wasn't stellar in doing so, as James finished with 38 points. But offensively, George helped fuel the fourth-quarter run and totaled 23 points.
Hibbert was dominant early on, as he scored 13 of his 21 points in the first quarter to help the Pacers take a 23-17 lead. West made only three shots, but his three-point basket with less than a minute remaining to give the Pacers (52-20) an 84-80 margin was seismic in its importance.
But it was the blending in of Turner that gave Indiana a measure of calm when Miami turned its 76-72 deficit into an 80-76 advantage in a span of 1:38 late in the game.
“Evan is a heck of a basketball player,” Vogel said. “He was huge for us.”
That's something for Indiana to remember going forward this season.