March 31, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Lance Stephenson realized long ago that it was a mistake to leave the Indiana Pacers.

So when Larry Bird called with an offer to come back and jump-start his career, the tough, 26-year-old guard shed tears of joy.

On Friday, about 24 hours after the Pacers made the signing official and Paul George welcomed him home with a text message, Stephenson returned to his old stomping grounds, looking for ways to help the Pacers make yet another playoff run.

''I was in New York rehabbing. I was like: `Man, I keep getting hurt. I guess I'll worry about next year,''' Stephenson said. ''When I got the call, I said: `Are you kidding? The Indiana Pacers? I'm going home.''

Plenty has changed since Stephenson last wore an Indiana uniform in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

George and Lavoy Allen are the only other players still around from that team.

Stephenson's familiar No. 1 jersey is now being worn by Kevin Seraphin, so Stephenson will switch to No. 6.

And instead of fighting for the top seed, the Pacers are struggling just to make the postseason.

They started Friday tied with Miami for seventh in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of Chicago with seven to play. Indiana was scheduled to visit Toronto Friday night.

The Bulls have an easier schedule over the final stretch, the Heat own the tiebreaker over Indiana and the Pacers are still down two key backups - center Al Jefferson and forward Glenn Robinson III. A sprained left ankle is expected to keep Jefferson out until the final week of the regular season. Robinson could return next week from a strained left calf.

And as Stephenson has watched from afar, he thinks he can help Indiana turn things around with a new attitude.

''I think the thing they're missing is that energy and that never bow-down-to-anyone (mentality),'' he said.

That was certainly a trademark of Stephenson's first stint in Indy.

The question is how long will it take him to make an impact this time?

He's fought through injuries all season, and after brief stops in New Orleans and Minnesota, Stephenson figured his fate this season would be measured in 10-day contracts.

Instead, Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations offered him a three-year deal - the first two guaranteed, the third a team option. It was too good to refuse.

''He's probably the only guy who believed in my game,'' Stephenson said. ''He always pushed me, he always challenged me. To have that guy behind you is incredible.''

Stephenson insists he has changed since leaving, too.

He's sporting a beard and the family members that lived with him in Indianapolis before now live in Las Vegas.

And after playing for five teams in less than three seasons, Stephenson said he has learned more about basketball, himself and how to be a better leader. Heck, he even laughed off a question about a possible rematch with LeBron James on Sunday in Cleveland, declining to answer a question that rekindled images of Stephenson blowing in James' ear during the 2014 conference finals.

But the Pacers brought back the 6-foot-5 guard for one reason: They want Stephenson to play with the same, old passion that made him a fan favorite the first time around.

''I think I can help these guys on the defensive end, and bring that tough edge about bowing down to no one,'' he said. ''I've got this year and next year, so I've got a lot of time to prove myself and show that I can get back to where I was.''

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