Stephenson returns to scene of better days
Lance Stephenson is keeping his head up, trying to say all the right things about his exile in Charlotte. But after walking the streets of downtown Indianapolis Thursday night and taking in all the Final Four activities, he couldn’t help but let his feelings slip.
“Just seeing all my friends, seeing all the places I used to go to when I was living out here …” he mused before Charlotte’s game-day shootaround at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday morning. “Just very sad coming back here and walking the streets and seeing all the people.
“They didn’t say nothing bad. It was, ‘Hey, we miss you. Come back!’”
Seeing the sights of the city was sad for Stephenson because they brought back so many happy memories of his four seasons with the Pacers, when he became a starter and an occasional star on teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals the past two seasons. Those memories are in sharp contrast to what he’s experiencing in Charlotte in a season that hasn’t turned out anything like he anticipated.
Entering Friday’s game, when he played only because the Pacers had the game won late in the third period, he was averaging just 8.3 points per game, 5.5 fewer than last season. He was playing 26.4 minutes, nine fewer than last season. He was hitting just 16 percent of his three-point shots, after hitting 35 percent last season. His field goal and free throw percentages are down significantly, too, and he’s playing on a team fighting to get into the playoffs, instead of one aiming for the No. 1 seed.
Worst of all, he had fallen out of the playing rotation the previous two games, drawing the dreaded DNP-CD – did not play because of the coach’s decision, rather than an injury, illness or excused absence. Stephenson’s coach, Steve Clifford, has been blunt, claiming he hasn’t been able to find a lineup in which Stephenson fits.
Stephenson acknowledges his unfortunate status as a round peg in the square hole of the Hornets’ offense.
“The Pacers system, I could play freely, I could be myself,” he said, sitting in the corner of the Hornet’s locker room while surrounded by Indianapolis reporters. “I could be myself. Here it’s like I got a little button on me and it’s like, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ I have to be able to play free and play relaxed and play through mistakes.”
Clifford, speaking with reporters before Friday’s game, said both he and Stephenson will need to make adjustments for the relationship to work next season.
“To me it’s space on the floor,” Clifford said. “If you look at it by the numbers, he shot a lot more layups last year that have turned into mid-range jump shots this year. His game starts by his passing. He makes plays for teammates, that’s how he naturally plays. His efficiency last year was largely by getting the ball all the way to the basket. Now those shots are mostly pullups. That’s not his strength.
“On my part, that’s the thing I have to do better – to find a way so there’s more space on the floor for him to get to the basket. (Then) he’ll be more comfortable. He’s played for one coach for four years, playing with the same sets and playing with the same teammates who are older and very skilled. That adjustment isn’t easy for a lot of guys.”
Stephenson has made it a point not to air complaints or regrets. He plans to stay in Charlotte in the off-season to work out, and will try to make it work next season. He’s on a three-year contract, with the third season at the Hornets’ option, so it will have to be worked out next season for him to stay there.
“It’s very humbling,” he said. “I’m going to learn the structure of basketball with this team and be positive. It’s really out of my hands. I’m staying in the gym and keeping my body right and will always be ready.
“(My goal is) for it to be different next season, where he can trust me and allow me to play my game.”
Meanwhile, Stephenson’s nostalgia for Indianapolis and the Pacers seemed obvious on Friday. He talked at length with Paul George at midcourt before the game, then watched George shoot on his own for about five minutes. He was saved the embarrassment of not playing by the Pacers’ dominance, and after scoring 10 points over the final 14 minutes, he walked toward the Pacers’ bench to greet several of his former teammates. George, David West, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi spent the most time with him, apparently offering encouragement and sympathy for his current plight.
“It’s definitely difficult,” Solomon Hill said. “We feel for him.”
If nothing else, it was a blatant rebuttal to those who have assumed the returning Pacers didn’t want Stephenson back this season.
“They’re like family, like brothers,” Stephenson said. “They just told me to hold my head up, keep working hard, keep focused; they’ve always been there to encourage me.”
Stephenson was booed each time he touched the ball, but he didn’t take that too personally.
“It’s just because I’m on a different team,” he said. “I know they have love for me and I’m not mad at them.”
Stephenson would not admit to regretting his rejection of the Pacers’ contract offer last June, one for more years than what he signed with the Hornets, but for slightly less money annually. But surely he was having second thoughts while Friday’s game played out. From watching George shoot around before the game, to hearing fans call out his name as he sat on the bench during the game, to talking with his victorious ex-teammates afterward, to reaching up to slap the hands of fans as he walked to the Hornets’ locker room, he experienced plenty of moments that would have induced nostalgia for a happier time.
And made him feel sad, too.