About three minutes into Game Four of their playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson missed a pull-up jump shot from the left elbow. Sure it was a dreaded long two-pointer, off the dribble and early in the shot clock, but there wasn’t a defender within four feet of him — a perfectly reasonable opportunity to seize in an offense that has been struggling to create open shots for the better part of two months. But as soon as the shot came off the back iron, you could see air began to leak out of Stephenson.
Stephenson began the game puffed-up, literally dripping with emotional intensity and all the accompanying physical expressions. He controlled the tip, securing the ball with an audible slap. Between that moment and his missed jumper he created a pair of wide-open three-point looks for George Hill and Paul George, knocked down a corner three-pointer of his own, pulled down a pair of rebounds and, on nearly every change of possession, pushed the ball up for the Pacers with the kind of urgency and bounce that should both inspire his teammates and terrify his opponents. He looked ready to remind everyone on the court that basketball was Lance’s World and they were merely living in it.
But then he missed a jump shot, the kind of jump shot teammates and coaches might call rushed. Over the next 90 seconds he missed a three-pointer, picked up an offensive foul for bowling over Paul Millsap on a stubbornly indecisive drive and then a technical for for giving the refs a piece of his mind as he picked himself off the floor. We didn’t see him for the rest of the quarter.
The first three minutes of that game were the Cliff Notes on Lance Stephenson, NBA basketball player. It is understood and accepted that the nature of his physical and emotional being means that every second he’s on the floor is a delicate balancing act between spectacular success and stunningly catastrophic failure. That interplay between victory and disaster is what has come to define Lance Stephenson but it misses a huge bit of context — the exact scenarios that push and pull him in both directions and the fact that they always seem to come in tightly packed cycles of apex and crash.
Over the past four seasons the Pacers have slowly chipped away at the intrinsic chaos Stephenson brings to the court. They have reinforced maturity and self-control, trained him to feel the game and respond to its ebb and flow instead of brutishly trying to push his way through it. It’s hard to argue with the results. From what seemed like a mad dash towards obscurity to becoming a crucial contributor on a top-tier team and part of one of the most effective five-man units of the past decade, it’s been a remarkable and thoroughly unexpected transformation. The Tao of Larry Bird has converted Stephenson into an actual productive professional basketball player.
But in the attempt to sand down all of his rough edges I fear that the Pacers may have inadvertently compromised his greatest quality — chaotic variance.
Every player has a visual signature, the first image conjured when their name is mentioned. David West is a mid-range jumpshot. Roy Hibbert is a sweeping hook shot. Lance Stephenson is a mistake made, followed by a clap of frustration, head tilted with a grimace that’s one part shame and two parts guilt.
A dangerous lack of self-control is the world’s oldest character flaw and many a compelling narrative has been spun around it. The ultimate victory for a character like Luke Skywalker comes with the pacification of their darker nature, choosing Light for once and for all. But the real world doesn’t work in such absolutes of morality or results. In the real world every choice is a sacrifice, not a dichotomous selection but the carving out of a niche within a sliding scale of possibilities.
Stephenson is only playing in the NBA right now because he has figured out some manner of constriction and control. Both he and the Pacers have to be thankful that he’s a productive player and not just a cautionary tale and an empty roster spot. But with such an emphasis on teaching him to reign himself in Stephenson seems to have lost a sense for how and when it is appropriate to let himself go. Every fleeting run of dominance ends with the first mental or physical mistake he makes as he slams on the brakes, as he’s been taught. And in that drastic deceleration we usually find a brief and scrambling meltdown, which simply reinforces the status quo. Stephenson plays at his unequivocal worst when he is consciously focused on regaining a measure of control, which makes the whole affair a self-fulfilling prophecy, awakening the ravenous Ouroboros and satiating it with a meal of its own tail.
I find it incredible that Stephenson’s current career-high scoring performance is just 28 points. I know he’s only been playing full-time minutes for two seasons and I know he plays for a team that purports to adhere to an egalitarian offense of movement and symbiosis. But in those two seasons, a garbage time scenario has never emerged for him to command, or a heat stroke so stunning that his teammates can’t help but simply stand and watch; 28 points is as far as his gladiatorial will has taken him.
Among his many talents, Stephenson appears to possess the rarest of basketball gifts — the ability to conjure results with force of will. There are moments where Lance Stephenson decides he’s going to score in a certain way and no earthly force can stop him. Different parts of the basketball world respectfully disagree about the existence of the Hot Hand, but no one can disagree with the existence of the Hot Freight Train. These moments of will-imposed dominance are not merely pulled from thin air; they require the cultivation of an adrenal high. But Stephenson is never allowed, and never allows himself, to sink into them. The Pacers have taught Stephenson to fear the beast inside instead of embrace it, encouraged him to snuff it out instead of seeking peaceful coexistence.
The Pacers have drawn a line in the sand for themselves. They looked at Lance Stephenson and decided here was the place to make their stand for stability and control. Any closer and their goal of refinement was impossible. Any further and the relationship between risk and reward was too imbalanced to make Stephenson useful to them.
The irony is that the Pacers now find themselves staring down a problem for which there is no clear answer. On the verge of a collapse for the history books, the Pacers offense looks utterly and disastrously broken. It is in desperate need of fuel, some sort of kinetic energy to organize and drive all the intricate pieces. Within Lance Stephenson there is the heat and force to be an offensive engine. I’ll admit that his fuel is of the nuclear variety, bringing the inherent risk of meltdown and catastrophic collateral damage. Asking him to assume this role also appears infinitely more risky because the fear of catastrophe has become so ingrained in him and themselves that they’ve never experimented with it for more than few minutes. At the first hint of trouble all the emergency back-up systems kick in, spraying the whole thing down with fire retardant and inserting Evan Turner into the lineup.
But now the Pacers find themselves with their backs against the wall. They can continue to grind from here on out, maybe get themselves past the Hawks, but championship aspirations are becoming more and more laughable by the minute. The only hand left to play is the straight flush of risk, variance, volcanic heat, snarling destruction and Lance Stephenson. But in their short-sighted desire to keep themselves in the game, have they already taken that card out of the deck?