Spike Lee might want to stop watching his New York Knicks and get started on the sequel to He Got Game, because Mike Woodson‘s group certainly didn’t have game Thursday night in Indianapolis.
The Indiana Pacers broke their season high in points scored (116 against the Kings on Jan. 14) with an aggressive home statement, defeating the Knicks 117-89 on Thursday. Indiana improved to 20-1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, leading the NBA in home win percentage. The second best home team record wise, the Los Angeles Clippers, have dropped three at Staples Center. It’s becoming more difficult to imagine this Frank Vogel’s Pacers losing three home games all YEAR the way they come ready to perform for their home crowd.
Early on, it appeared that Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were going to steal the show, one way or another. Anthony scored 18 points in the first quarter, capped off with a 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer. While George didn’t have a prolific scoring quarter, he battled Anthony in the paint and wasn’t backing down from the physical battle the two also encountered in the earlier matchup at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks led by one, 31-30, after one of the better first quarters Indiana has played all season long. Remember, it’s the third quarter they have thrived on all year.
On Thursday, however, the second quarter became the difference maker.
A key moment occurred with 4:28 left in the second, after Roy Hibbert picked off an entry pass from Tyson Chandler to Carmelo Anthony. It truly signified everything the Pacers have put together since forming this core group of guys. Hibbert absolutely hustled his way to secure the steal on the perimeter, something big men in today’s game rarely want to do. Saving the ball from heading out of bounds, Hibbert threw it ahead to David West to begin a 2-on-1 fastbreak. Instead of scoring the ball himself with what would have been a wide open dunk at the rim, West dished the ball off to teammate Lance Stephenson, who was trailing just a few steps behind and finished with a successful layup. People normally wouldn’t take much exception to the casual play, but it was a moment that did two things: Proved the type of veteran West is in this league, and got the crowd roaring, thus eliminating the Knicks for the rest of the evening. After that demonstration of teamwork, the Pacers led 49-41, and it wouldn’t be a close game from that point forward.
Stephenson came through with the best, and most entertaining, performance of the night, scorching the Knicks for a career high 28 points. He picked his spots accordingly, shooting 10-of-17 from the field. What may have been equally as impressive though, were his slick passes to Paul George and David West, which became instances that showed off his unselfishness and wide array of skills. Leading 104-79 in the fourth quarter, Stephenson decided to torment J.R. Smith (who is having a rough time of his own in New York) by picking his pocket at halfcourt and racing the other way to score. After Stephenson scored the acrobatic layup while taking a slap to the arm from Smith, he proceeded to do his signature celebration dance. Members of the crowd probably joined in, because garbage time was in full effect.
Sir Lancealot’s career night sure illustrated why he deserves to be a member of the Eastern Conference All-Star team, in New Orleans on February 16.
It’s no secret that the Western Conference is going to be stacked with talent, and fans are going to realize how tough it is to limit that All-Star squad down to 12 players. The Eastern Conference team, however, just wouldn’t be complete without this year’s Lance Stephenson on the list of reserves. The Miami Heat are guaranteed to get three players locked in; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Indiana’s Paul George and Roy Hibbert will be definite All-Stars, and may even start. Pencil Carmelo Anthony in. When discussing point guards, you have to think Rajon Rondo (if feeling healthy), John Wall, and Kyrie Irving will join. With Brook Lopez injured, his spot is vacated. Joakim Noah will likely return considering his recent level of play. That leaves two open spots, and the way I see it, Stephenson and Luol Deng belong in that mix.
Not only is he showing great passion for the game, playing hard on both ends, and making his teammates better, but Stephenson’s statistics are better across the board this season.
Through 37 games, the 3-year guard is averaging 13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game. His numbers through 78 games last season? 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. Granted, he is receiving a minute boost this season (35 minutes per game in 2013-14 to just 29.2 in 2012-13), he has performed at an extremely high level when he’s on the floor, enough to make Coach Frank Vogel place Danny Granger in the bench rotation and keep Stephenson in the starting lineup.
By far, the most impressive feat Stephenson is currently achieving is his mind blowing efficiency and decision making. Of his 406 shot attempts this season, 177 have come less than five feet from the basket. That’s 43.5 percent of his shots coming near the rim, showing that he’s focused on getting the best looks and not solely looking to score from the outside. Keep in mind, he did hire a shooting coach in the offseason. Nonetheless, he’s attacking the paint. Overall, Stephenson is shooting 50.2 percent from the field, being the only Pacers’ starter over the 50 percent mark. From beyond the 3-point line, he’s shooting a career high 35.7 percent. As he gets better by the game, it’s becoming to feel as if there isn’t an aspect of the game this guy can’t do. And the bottom line, he’s playing harder than anyone on every single possession. NBA coaches know better than anyone … you can’t teach that.
Paul George finished with 25 points and seven rebounds as he knocked down four 3-pointers. With Reggie Miller in attendance, it was another game that may have opened up everyone’s eyes to the question I raised last summer about George becoming the Greatest Pacer of All-Time. It will be a while for that, but he’s sure keeping up the superstar level of play.
After the game, George touched on how well the Pacers can perform when they get in transition:
“We understand how good we are when we run,” George stated. “I think that’s the best way to put it and the biggest way to look at it.”
Neither team scored many fast break points, but that stat can often lie. Sometimes getting solid defensive stops and simply out-hustling the opponent to get up on offense can mean your team is better when you “run.” That was the case for the Pacers on Thursday, forcing New York to turn the ball over 12 times. Normally that wouldn’t be a bad night, but Indiana gave up the ball just five times. Vogel was correct; the key for this team to excel every single night is for them to keep the turnovers down.
The Pacers should remember this game for the rest of their season, and even into the Playoffs. While the Knicks haven’t been the most terrifying opponent this season, this blowout victory will serve as a prime example of what they can do when everyone is clicking, they take care of the ball, and when Lance Stephenson is putting on a clinic.