Frank Vogel still doesn’t want to talk about that little chat he had after practice last week with Lance Stephenson.
Whatever he said worked. In a big way.
At the time, the Pacers were coming off that Game 5 stinker in the second-round series against the Wizards, when Washington dominated the boards 62-23 in a 102-79 blowout and Stephenson, the team’s second-leading rebounder in the playoffs, had none in a surprisingly lifeless performance.
Vogel pulled Stephenson aside and the two sat on the scorer’s table for a long talk, nothing loud, nothing animated, just a conversation between player and coach.
“We were actually talking about restaurants in Indy, where he likes to eat and stuff,” Vogel said with a smile after practice Monday.
Hunger is rarely an issue with Stephenson. Table manners, on the other hand, have been an ongoing problem.
In the two games since, Stephenson has totaled 34 points, 16 assists, nine rebounds, three turnovers and shot 64 percent. That includes a strong 17-point, eight-assist performance in the Pacers’ 107-96 victory over Miami Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s an encouraging turnaround for a player that had averaged 10 points on .333 shooting in the previous five games, both in terms of production and demeanor. There have been no staredowns, no taunts, no gestures of any kind. Just basketball.
Whether it continues in Game 2 tonight in Bankers Life Fieldhouse (8:30 p.m., ESPN) remains to be seen, but it appears Stephenson is working hard at keeping his focus.
“Playing against the Heat, I’ve got to calm down my little antics,” Stephenson said. “I’ve decided I ain’t going to do none of that at all. I’m just going to stay poised and just play with my team.
“I mean, when I do some dances and stuff or get the crowd involved, I actually play better but if it’s going to help my teammates and help me stay in the game, I’m not going to do that.”
Miami’s last regular-season visit to Indianapolis was not a proud moment for Stephenson, who was ejected with 5 minutes remaining in a game the Pacers were leading by just four points. They hung on to win, but the ejection was a bone of contention.
“I think he learned from that experience. I think he felt horrible about getting ejected out of a big game like that,” Vogel said. “It’s (better) to learn a lesson then than in the playoffs. I think he learned from that and came back and just has the mindset he’s going to keep his edge, he’s going to bring the edge he brings to our team, but he’s not going to do anything that crosses the line.”
Stephenson, who led the Pacers and was fourth in the NBA with 14 technical fouls during the regular season, was called for three in the first-round series against Atlanta, but one was rescinded. A seventh postseason technical draws a mandatory one-game suspension, as does each one following.
His importance to the team was most apparent in the second quarter of Game 1. When Miami cut the Pacers’ early 10-point lead to 35-31, Stephenson hit four buckets on an 11-6 counter that pushed it to 46-37. On the Pacers’ last possession of the half, he posted up LeBron James for a bucket that made it 55-45 at the break.
“He’s been able to control (his emotions). He’s definitely been able to control them. That’s as much as I could say on that,” said Paul George. “He’s learned to be a professional. He’s just an emotional person. That’s what we need, though. We need a guy with that energy, that toughness.
“He gets out of hand sometimes, but we can live with most of it. But I thought he did a great job of just staying poised and keeping himself within the game.”
Stephenson’s teammates and coaches have long been convinced he does not need the histrionics to fuel his game; in fact, they believe he is at his best without those distractions. Maybe now, Stephenson is figuring that out for himself. It wouldn’t be the last step in his development, but it just might be the biggest.