Stephenson Sparks Stunning Comeback

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The Pacers are 8-8 after Friday’s inspired and inspiring victory over Detroit, the very definition of mediocrity and, on the surface, a familiarly bland sight. Last season’s team was 7-9 at the same point of the season, and had to win its final six games to get to 42 victories.

Thaddeus Young, one of just five players to survive the summer house-cleaning, sees a major difference with the current group, however, well beyond the slight improvement in the record.

“We’re doing it by committee,” Young said, echoing what might as well be this team’s motto. “We’re not depending on one or two people to get us over the top, we all play a vital part in what we do on the court. We all have to lock in.

We’re just trying to win basketball games and we’re trying to figure it out together. We come in here each and every day and talk. We’re like brothers. It’s that family feel each and every day.”

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The committee agreed upon a plan of action midway through the third quarter, leading a comeback from a 22-point deficit for a 107-100 victory, one it hopes turns out to be a unifying building block rather than just another W. Seven players combined to make vital contributions, including three reserves who played all or nearly all of the fourth quarter, when the Pacers outscored the Pistons 36-19.

Complete records are not available, but it is known the Pacers have not had a comeback of 22 points or more going back at least to the 2002-03 season. This one was scintillating, full of heart, hustle and hysterics, not to mention timely shot-making.

Victor Oladipo led the Pacers with 21 points, but, more significantly, had 15 rebounds. Young had 18 points. Darren Collison had 16 points, six assists, and just one turnover — improving upon his assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.5-1, which ranks fourth in the NBA. Bojan Bogdanovic was solid with 15 points, and hit consecutive 3-point shots in the third quarter that helped ignite the comeback.

Some of Friday’s primary committee members, however, were filling in. Backups Lance Stephenson, Cory Joseph, and Domantas Sabonis all played a major role in the late-arriving storm that drenched the Pistons, who entered the game with the second-best record (10-4) in the Eastern Conference.

Sabonis managed 12 points and 10 rebounds, his fifth double-double of the season, in just 24 minutes. He had eight points and six rebounds in the fourth quarter, when he went the distance. That’s significant, because he had contracted food poisoning on Thursday, and skipped Friday morning’s shootaround. He didn’t decide to play until after going through pre-game warmups, and didn’t expect to play more than 15 minutes.

He still felt ill throughout the first half, but the adrenaline of the comeback and the crowd reaction carried him through the second.

“The first half was tough,” said Sabonis, whose driving dunk with 1:09 remaining opened a seven-point lead. “The second half came a lot easier.

“I felt a lot better. My adrenaline. The whole crowd was up. That helped a lot.”

Amid all the chaos, though, Stephenson stood out most. For the first time this season he was in Born Ready mode, a hustling, posturing, dancing, contributing force that reminded fans of the player who nearly made the All-Star team four seasons ago. He scored all 13 of his points in the fourth period and grabbed six of his eight rebounds, and that was just the superficial part of it all.

“He did everything,” Detroit forward Anthony Tolliver said. “He just brought tons and tons of energy. He was all over the place tonight.”

Stephenson had suffered through a scoreless first half in which he also was largely responsible for Pistons rookie Luke Kennard getting off for 10 points, including two 3-pointers. He responded by shadowing Kennard in the second half, even standing next to him during dead balls to try to intimidate him.

“I had a tough first half and I told myself when the coach called my name when I got in there I was going to change the atmosphere,” Stephenson said. “And I did it.”

Yes, he did.

Stephenson spearheaded a frantic defensive effort that forced the Pistons into six turnovers. He also made the hustle plays, and the biggest shots. His 3-pointer with 5 1/2 minutes left got the Pacers within two points and forced a Pistons timeout. His left-handed tip of Cory Joseph’s missed baseline shot less than a minute later opened a two-point lead. His 3-pointer from 29 feet to beat the shot clock opened a four-point lead with 2:03 left. He shimmied after that one, standing in place and swirling his hips.

“When he started doing that, everybody was in the game,” Oladipo said. “Players. Coaches. Fans. He has that infectious energy.”

Moments later, after the rebound of Pistons forward Stanley Johnson’s missed 3-pointer was volleyed about, Stephenson dove out of bounds underneath Detroit’s basket and threw a no-look pass to his right to Sabonis, who took a return pass from Oladipo at the other end for a driving dunk with 1:09 left that forced another Detroit timeout and sent the fans into further frenzy.

His teammates were inspired, too. Afterward, while Stephenson was conducting a television interview with courtside reporter Jeremiah Johnson, Oladipo stood off to the side and danced. Collison then gleefully smacked Stephenson on the butt on his way off the floor.

“Just wanted to come in and help my teammates and bring that defensive energy and bring that spark to help us win,” Stephenson said.

The obvious question following a game such as this is whether it will have lasting impact. It has no obvious answer, however. Can it propel the Pacers toward a higher level of play, giving them more confidence in themselves and one another? Or will it bring a letdown, the way the Pistons let down after gaining that 22-point advantage in the third quarter?

The first indication will come when the Pacers return to the road for games in Miami on Sunday and Orlando on Monday.

“We’re learning about this team,” coach Nate McMillan said. “This group has worked hard, really every day. We’ve lost some games where we didn’t execute down the stretch, but the effort has always been there. Tonight you saw a team that didn’t give up.

“We want to build off of this. I think it shows them what they’re capable of doing.”


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