A year ago, the scene was comical. Lance Stephenson, a second-year sub, an afterthought on Indiana's bench, a mop up man who played a total of 12 minutes in the playoffs, was chirping at LeBron James and Dwyane Wade during a second-round series from his seat on the Pacers sideline. So under Miami's skin was Stephenson in that series that Heat forward Juwan Howard went looking for him after a practice in Indiana and confronted Stephenson on the floor before Game 4.
Stephenson and the Heat met again on Friday, and this time, no one in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was laughing. Same as he ever was, there was Stephenson, yapping, barking and being a general nuisance. The difference? This time, he did it from the floor. Stephenson scored 15 points in 39 minutes, hounding Wade into a 7-for-16 shooting night, bodying up James and spearheading Indiana's top-ranked defense in a 102-89 win.
It has been a season of growth for Stephenson, as it has for this entire Pacers team. With leading scorer Danny Granger sidelined since training camp with a knee injury, Stephenson and third-year swingman Paul George have been asked to play more prominent roles. In stepped Stephenson, with his physical defense and smooth stroke. In stepped George, a starter last season whose improved play earned him an All-Star spot. Indiana's big, physical front line continues to be its identity but the progress of the Pacers young wing players has added a badly needed dimension.
This is the recipe to beat Miami, which for all its talent, for all its star power still can't find a front court rotation that works. From Chris Bosh to Udonis Haslem, from Shane Battier to Chris Andersen, the Heat continue to search for consistent combinations. Indiana has beaten Miami twice in the last month, both times by double digits. The Pacers beat the Heat down on the inside Friday night, obliterating Miami on the boards (34-25) while holding a 48-40 edge in points in the paint, with David West (30 points) leading the way. They did that last year, too, only this time, this year, the Pacers had the strong play of Stephenson and George (15 points, six assists, 10 rebounds) to keep Miami from storming back.
The Pacers have an elite young coach in Frank Vogel, who has drilled defense and a team-first offensive approach that every player has bought into. Vogel followed Rick Pitino to Boston, apprenticed under Jim O'Brien with three organizations and has taken the best from his former bosses. But it's his cool, unflappable demeanor, his willingness to accept short bouts of immaturity as long as they pass that has been instrumental in Indiana's rise to conference contender.
Make no mistake, this Indiana team is a contender. They will have to figure out what to do when Granger comes back, likely around the All-Star break. Vogel says Granger will be a starter, but his minutes can't come at the expense of George and Stephenson. And they must solve the riddle of Roy Hibbert, who has inexplicably regressed. Perhaps it's the absence of Granger, whose perimeter shooting kept defenses honest. Perhaps it's because after last season's All-Star campaign, teams are digging a little deeper to defend him. For Indiana to win consistently they need big plays from the 7-foot-2 center, and, for now, they aren't getting them.
These are problems, but they are ones the Pacers are eager to attack. The young players looked into the lights and blinked last season, allowing Miami to run them over. To a man these Pacers believe they can beat the Heat now, buoyed by two wins that were almost never in doubt.
"You can only go as far as your team believes they can go," Vogel said. "Any time you beat a great team like Miami, it builds confidence."
Indeed, Indiana's confidence is building, and if Granger comes back strong it will soar. As the final buzzer sounded James embraced George, told him good game, told him he would see him in Houston. George is eager for that experience, of course, looking forward to taking his place among the NBA's elite. It will be a fun exhibition. But George, like the rest of the Pacers, is anxious for the chance to see James and the Heat again when it counts.