Skeptics of the Indiana Pacers have argued their main weakness is ball-handling which leads to turnovers. The Miami Heat took full advantage of that in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals as they forced Indiana to nearly 16 turnovers per game. Still, the Pacers brought back George Hill for another go-around at point guard, yet what has surprised every one around the league is the improved play-making ability of Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson helped the Pacers to a 116-111 overtime win over the Sacramento Kings on Friday night where Indiana was at their best when he initiated the offense. Hill often stagnates the team as he is not strong with the basketball and is easily pushed far away from the basket when trying to create. This puts Indiana against the clock and often leads to a forced shot.
The fourth year Cincinnati product led his team back from 17 points down in the third quarter when he took over the reigns of the offense. Head coach Frank Vogel made the adjustment which quickly led to multiple baskets and more fluidity in the offense. Stephenson finished with six assists to go along with 24 points. Couple this with his ferocity to rebound — 10 in the game — and you have a player who has made his case for the All-Star Game in New Orleans.
This one was thrilling as Paul George sent the game into overtime with a four-point play. Marcus Thornton had a season-high 42 points for Sacramento, and even David West hit a three in OT. But the unsung hero on this night was Stephenson.
Stephenson has gone from averaging under three assists last year to now over five dimes per game in the 2013-14 campaign. Indiana went from 27th in the league in assists last year to 19th this year and climbing.
It’s a minor improvement, and it might end up being the difference this year in handling pressure defense in the playoffs.