The Indiana Pacers don't have a prototypical playmaker. They're not built around an All-Star point guard or a star on the wing creating all opportunities for his teammates. This team is built around defensive dominance and enough scoring to win out in the majority of their games. It's a big reason why their offense can stall so much during the bad stretches. They simply don't have someone that certain someone to consistently break down the defense.
When you get out of Lance Stephenson what the Pacers got in their Game 1 rematch against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, they feel unbeatable. Stephenson playing the controlled, attacking game we saw in their 107-96 victory gives the Pacers that playmaker their offense so greatly craves. Keeping his desire to make plays in balance with the flow of the game is always the key to maximizing what Stephenson can give your team. His 17-point, eight-assist, four-rebound performance showed off that perfect balance.
Stephenson's passing was the real key to how effective he was able to be. On one end of the floor, he was defending Dwyane Wade, a new "rival" due to some verbal run-ins. Wade had a good game scoring the ball, something that would probably frustrate a fiery competitor like Stephenson who can let the best of his emotions get to him. And yet, he still managed to keep his head. Aside from a couple bad shot decisions he made, his kept his game completely controlled and showed important patience in his passing.
He had eight assists in the game, contributing 19 points just off his passing. Of the eight assists, three were very basic plays that were just station-to-station passing. There wasn't any real creation. Here are those three basic assists:
The best assist of those three was definitely the first one. He decides to make the extra pass to the corner instead of trying to take on the transition opportunity himself. This doesn't sound like a big deal, and maybe it's really not, but it showed control from the start of the game, which is huge for his play. If he's controlled while still being aggressive, it's his best style of competing on the court.
That assist on the inbound play for a Paul George midrange jumper was the only basket he created for a teammate that didn't come behind the 3-point line or in the paint. 17 of the points he created with his passing were of the most efficient variety. Stephenson got his team looks inside and looks on the perimeter, picking apart the mistakes the Heat defense made throughout the game. Let's take a look at his other five assists and where he took advantage of Miami:
The importance of patience in your passing decisions is huge as a player and when Stephenson allowed the play to develop, the defense didn't really have a chance of defending it. He wasn't hesitant; he was calm. The first pass to C.J. Watson on the wing was him reading Ray Allen's reluctance to leave Rasual Butler in the corner, and getting rid of the ball before Norris Cole could double off of Watson to disrupt the play. Stephenson did a great job of keeping the ball in the middle of the floor on his decisions to give him the most real estate the thinnest resistance possible.
His retreat dribble on the second assist after the Heat tried to trap off the pick-and-roll was the correct decision because he got to reset and observe the floor once again. He waited for the pick-and-pop to start developing with Luis Scola. Once Cole was transfixed on Scola, Watson cut back door and Stephenson recognized the necessary timing beautifully.
Throughout the game, the Heat struggled defending the pick-and-roll and the pick-and-pop. They seemed too soft when they trapped, the backside help wasn't in position, and they were tentative in how they set up where they wanted to Pacers to go. Stephenson navigated it beautifully and dissected their poor defense with his passing. It's hard to know how much of it was a result of bad defense and how much of it was a result of good play by Stephenson. But regardless, the Pacers took advantage no matter what the reasoning was.
This is the kind of team play the Pacers were missing for 3.5 months of the season and playoffs. When Stephenson dishes out six assists or more in a game, Indiana is 24-4 and that includes the playoffs. He is their playmaker on a lot of nights and if he can be their playmaker throughout this series while showing the control he possessed in Game 1, we may not see the Heat have a chance to three-peat next month.