It was just one play, one defensive stop. But when a point guard known for everything but defense forces the NBA’s best player into a turnover on a potential game-winning possession, it stands out.
That’s why, when Darren Collison was being interviewed in the Pacers’ victorious locker room Friday, Victor Oladipo was shouting “Defensive Player of the Year!” from across the room. And that’s why Lance Stephenson was chiming in with “DC! DC!” from another angle of the room.
Collison, all 6-foot, 175 pounds of him, wound up isolated on the right baseline against LeBron James in the waning moments of the Pacers’ game against Cleveland Friday, having inherited the dirty job after calling for a defensive switch with Stephenson. What was going through his head at the time?
“Prayer,” he said.
The Cavs had taken the ball out of bounds with 5.5 seconds left, trailing by a single point, and naturally were going to give the ball to James. He sized up Collison, then attempted to drive the right baseline. Collison scooted over to his left quickly enough to cut off James, forcing him to step on the endline.
Turnover. Then one free throw out of two by Collison after an intentional foul to give the Pacers a 97-95 lead, then a James 3-pointer from 26 feet that bounced off the back of the rim at the final buzzer and that was that. The Pacers, after trailing by 22 points at the end of the first quarter, had rallied for a stunning 97-95 victory over Cleveland.
One would say it was improbable, but not for this Pacers team. It was practically probable, given their habit of death-defying escape acts. They’ve now won six games after trailing by at least 10 points, and four games after trailing by 19 or more.
This one was pretty much like the others, filled with the usual clutch shooting, frantic defense, and Stephenson antics. It provided the Pacers their third win of the season over Cleveland, and dropped the Cavs to their eighth loss in their last 11 games.
So, just past the midway point of the season, the Pacers stand in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but just four games back of the defending conference finalist Cavs in third, and 2 1/2 games back of Miami in fourth. Anything can happen from here and probably will, given the nature of this team that takes its own sweet time getting into games, but doesn’t know when to quit.
That 34-12 deficit after the first quarter will stand as a mere footnote to what otherwise was a complicated, dramatic, and reassuring victory for a team still trying to find a stride. Collison scored 22 points, hitting his first nine shots before missing his final two. It’s one of the NBA’s best-kept secrets that he ranks in the top 10 in 3-point field goal percentage (.441), the top 11 in free throw percentage (.888) and is third in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.0).
Oladipo scored 19 on a poor shooting night (8-of-21), but hit the game’s biggest shot, a 26-foot 3-pointer with 2:10 left that gave the Pacers a one-point lead.
Domantas Sabonis, starting a second straight game at center in place of Myles Turner, grabbed 15 rebounds and scored 12 points. Al Jefferson filled in as the backup center with eight points and four rebounds. And Cory Joseph again erased one of the NBA’s most lethal 3-point threats, Kyle Korver, from the game. Korver missed all five 3-point shots, making him 1-of-13 in three games against the Pacers this season.
But Stephenson was the instigator and generator of this latest thrill-packed episode at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, riling up the fans, his teammates, and, most surprisingly, James. Stephenson played 30 minutes off the bench, including the final 17 minutes, 52 seconds, and finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, a steal, a blocked shot, and two turnovers.
He also tugged on Superman’s cape, and got away with it.
Pumped up after hitting a 3-pointer with 8:03 left that gave the Pacers the lead, he stabbed at James’ dribble and deflected the ball out of bounds at the sideline in front of the scorer’s table. He then crowded James, nudging him a little, causing James to complain to the referees, and even put his hands on veteran official Bennie Adams. After order was restored and the ball was ready to be inbounded, Stephenson approached James and put his right hand on James’ back. James responded by shoving Stephenson backward with his left arm.
After a review, James was assessed a technical foul.
“I should have known,” James said. “I’ve known since high school, it’s not the guy who tells the joke that gets caught, it’s the guy who laughs. They caught me on a retaliation. But he played well tonight.”
The minor incident continued a history of dramatic moments between the two in The Fieldhouse. In 2012, when the Pacers were playing Miami in a second-round playoff series, Stephenson wrapped his hands around his neck to signify that James had “choked” after missing a technical free throw. Then in 2014, in a moment that will live forever in memes, Stephenson blew lightly in James’ left ear while bent over next to him during a dead ball during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stephenson insisted afterward he wasn’t trying to bait James into a technical foul by crowding him. It’s something he does frequently to the player he’s guarding, often with a positive result. It was nothing personal against James, nor an attempt to renew a rivalry.
“I’m not trying to start anything, just showing that I’m locked in and I’m going to play tough defense on you and you ain’t going to get nothing easy,” Stephenson said.
“I was surprised (James reacted). That was the first time he showed he was mad. So, yeah, I was surprised.”
Pacers coach Nate McMillan “absolutely” doesn’t approve of Stephenson’s tendency to walk right to the edge of sportsmanship violations that could bring a technical foul or motivate an opponent.
He’s talked with Stephenson about it before and no doubt will do so again, but in the meantime he’ll live happily with that kind of performance, one he considered Stephenson’s best two-way effort of the season.
Stephenson was, and is, the Pacers’ catalyst, the engine behind a team that struggles to find a gear. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter, hitting 3-of-4 shots and 2-of-3 3-pointers while grabbing four rebounds. It was obvious his teammates were looking for him on most possessions, waiting for him to do something, willing to put the game in the hands of the most fearless Pacers player.
“Lance’s energy and bringing the crowd into the game is big-time for us,” Collison said. “Especially when we’re being down so much. We need that fire, we need energy, we need something entertaining to get us going and Lance does a good job of doing that.”
James’ technical foul threatened to be a bear-poking moment. The Cavs ran off seven consecutive points afterward, taking an 89-84 lead, and extended that to 95-89 after James escaped Stephenson to hit a 20-foot jumper off a pick.
Moments later, as Sabonis was preparing to shoot free throws with 3:44 remaining, Stephenson was agitated, fussing at something. Collison talked with him for a while, and then Thaddeus Young took him aside to talk some more. It turned out Stephenson was upset with himself, for letting James score three times in the previous 2 1/2 minutes.
“I was asking, ‘What I can do on the defensive end? What can I do different?'” Stephenson explained. “(Collison) said, ‘You’re playing good defense, just stay in front of him and get into him a little more.'”
James didn’t score the rest of the game. None of the Cavs did, for that matter, as the Pacers forced them into nine missed shots and a turnover the rest of the game.
Collison closed the deal defensively, but Stephenson negotiated most of it. Approve of his methods or not, they worked. They were necessary, too. But they also were contained. Stephenson said he and James didn’t say a word to one another, neither during nor after the game. They never have talked, in fact.
“I just want to have fun and play,” Stephenson said. “I’m not trying to be the other team’s friend. I’m trying to be my teammates’ friend. When I’m playing against guys on another team, I’m not talking to you. I’ve got nothing to say to you, I want to kick your butt.”
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