INDIANAPOLIS – The most significant step forward in the current building of the Indianapolis professional basketball franchise back to relevancy wasn’t going to come easy.
History has shown it. Comparisons between players on the team show it. The series through five games has shown it.
Getting that elusive fourth win in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Knicks was going to be a difficult proposition, even with their stellar 5-0 home record in the playoffs.
Yet in the end the player who found it easy to make things happen in Game Six on Saturday night is a player who has had a not-so-easy road to the NBA. Off the court problems kept the New York high school phenom down for a time. Since the Pacers took a chance on Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 draft, the guard has slowly been rebuilding his image while tweaking his game.
Finally it appears to have all come together.
Facing a team from his home town, Stephenson put it all together with a career-high in points to help the Pacers eliminate the Knicks with the 106-99 victory.
With an aggressive approach the guard had a team-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field to go along with ten rebounds. Paul George added 23 while Roy Hibbert put in 21 points ash snagged a team-high 12 rebounds-along with a huge block late in the fourth quarter on Carmelo Anthony-helping the Pacers outscore the Knicks 25-18 in the fourth quarter.
Anthony turned in perhaps the best offensive performance by any player in the series, scoring a game-high 39 points but it was not enough to help the Knicks force a Game Seven.
The Pacers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004 and will face the Heat in Game One on Wednesday in Miami at 8:30 P.M.
At first it might seem like the Pacers would indeed make it simple to dispatch the Knicks and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to a steady first half. Perhaps that had something to do with the return of George Hill, who was cleared by doctors to play in Game Six after missing the last contest with a concussion.
The Pacers offense, which was inconsistent in a ten-point Game Five loss in New York without Hill, found rhythm with the point guard back. Who it really helped was Lance Stephenson, who was able to be more aggressive with Hill back in the lineup and it showed as he scored 16 first half points. His bucket and foul with five seconds to go in the second quarter gave the Pacers an eight-point lead at the break.
It appeared Indiana would capitalize on that momentum when they took a 12-point lead on a David West jumper with 8:33 to go in the third quarter. Then New York showed up-doing so from the outside. Over the final 7:56 of the quarter the Knicks hit six three-pointers including four by Iman Shumpert-the last of which tied the game at 79.
Chris Copeland of New York then helped extend the New York lead to three with a pair of triples from the outside as the Knicks appeared in position to take control of the contest. Yet the Pacers never let the game get away and continued to fight back to tie it at a number of times in the fourth quarter.
One of the critical moments came late in the fourth when the Knicks had a chance to go up by four points as Anthony went up for a slam. But Hibbert put his hand on the ball and pushed it out of the hoop-and New York never regained the rhythm.
Stephenson then pushed the Pacers ahead with a run of his own with four minutes to go. On the fast break the guard was fouled on the way up for the lay-up yet managed to put it in, then hit the free thrown to put the Pacers up by three. Shortly after, Stephenson drew a foul on an aggressive drive and promptly hit two free throws to give the Pacers a five-point lead.
With under two minutes to go, Stephenson hit a left-hander in the lane around Anthony to put the Pacers up seven and send the team to the NBA’s Final Four.