Lance Stephenson went by the nickname “Born Ready” as one of the nation’s top high-school basketball players and one of the most decorated New York prep products.
Often times, during his one year at Cincinnati and his first two seasons with the Indiana Pacers, Stephenson made folks wonder if the “Born Ready” tag was purely hype and little substance amid instances of immaturity and lack of production.
However, with Danny Granger sidelined for virtually the entire 2012-13 season with a knee injury, the 6-6 Stephenson capitalized on the opportunity at starter’s minutes, and he put a huge exclamation on his remarkable improvement last Saturday with a 25-point, 10-rebound effort (including a clutch nine-point fourth quarter) to lead the Pacers to a series-clinching Game 6 victory over the New York Knicks and a date with the Miami Heat in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, which begin with today’s Game 1 at 8:30 p.m. in Miami.
That Game 6 performance suggested Stephenson indeed may have been “Born Ready.” The Pacers hope that’s the case regardless, but it very well might be key to their chances at defeating Miami and earning a trip to their first NBA Finals since 2000.
A common criticism of the Pacers, despite even their advancing to the NBA’s semifinal round, is the lack of a true superstar, or more specifically, a true go-to scoring option, at least without Granger.
That well could be true; Paul George, who won the league’s Most Improved Player award for this season, did step up his offensive game in Granger’s absence, but he still only registered 25th in the NBA in points per game (17.4) and shot at just a 41.9-percent clip during the regular season. David West was tied for 27th at 17.1, and George Hill ranked 50th at 14.2. While these three guys collectively have accounted for most of Indiana’s offense, an objective observer could reasonably look at them and not be able to pick out a guy he’d want taking the last shot of a game with no questions asked.
Fortunately for the Pacers, they haven’t been in such a position a lot during these playoffs; Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals easily has been their toughest late-game test. But who was closing out that game for Indiana scoring-wise?
Stephenson has done his fair share of scoring at the lower levels of basketball competition, but during his three-year tenure with the Pacers, he’s mainly made his name doing dirty work — he’s become a sensational rebounding guard, averaging 8.1 boards in these playoffs. His double-double to stick a fork in his hometown Knicks — Stephenson once commented that he thought New York would draft him — suggested he has offensive potential to offer Indiana as well.
That might be just what the doctor ordered at just the right time for the Pacers, because Stephenson may get some of the more favorable matchups in this seemingly daunting series against the NBA’s defending champs (and the hottest team going, having won 45 of 48).
The presumption is that league MVP LeBron James will guard George or West (or both at different times). A conventional head-to-head positional analysis would pit Dwyane Wade on Stephenson. Stephenson scored in double figures in each of the Pacers’ two regular-season wins against the Heat, often while going against Wade. Wade currently is limited with a knee injury, so Stephenson might be able to have continued success driving to the basket as he has done so fearlessly of late.
That would be monumental to the Pacers’ chances at the requisite four wins in this series. Indiana has no viable scoring option off the bench. The other starters are looking LeBron straight in the face, perhaps with the exception of Roy Hibbert.
If Stephenson can prove he was “Born Ready” for this moment, the Pacers just might have a chance.