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Monday, March 8, 2021

Stephenson propels Pacers to conference finals

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For a player with little playoff experience, Lance Stephenson certainly picked a great time to distinguish himself as his spirited play lifted the Indiana Pacers to a series clinching 106-99 victory over the New York Knicks, sending the Pacers to their first Eastern Conference Finals in nine years. Stephenson dropped in a career playoff high 25 points and added ten rebounds in what can only be described as the greatest performance of his professional career.

“I was so ready for this game that I could hardly sleep last night,” shouted Stephenson as he was interviewed just after the game. “I just wanted to be aggressive and stay focused.”

He did that and quite a bit more as he literally turned back the opposition in the third quarter by himself just as the Knicks outside shooting touch returned and it looked like they might hand the Pacers their first home court loss in the playoffs and in the process forcing a deciding seventh game in New York. The Knicks again looked to their best player to carry them and while Carmelo Anthony scorched Indiana for 39 points, he was just 2-7 from the field with three turnovers in the deciding final stanza.

New York was perfect from the line (18-18) but allowed the Pacers to visit the charity stripe a whopping 46 times. Indiana missed 12 of those opportunities and they also struggled from beyond the arc hitting just 4 of 15 three point attempts.

Despite the shooting woes, the Pacers buckled down defensively in the final three minutes and when the Knicks displayed a woeful example of clock management during the last minute of the game, the ticket to the Conference Finals against the Miami Heat was punched before yet another rousing sellout crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Notes: The return of George Hill was huge for the Pacers. While his 12 points, five rebounds and four assists were not flashy, he played a gritty 42 minutes and provided stability at the point after missing Game 5 with a concussion.

New York’s Iman Shumpert hit for 19 points with the bulk of those coming in the third quarter as he gave Pacer fans an anxiety attack when he went five for five from behind the arc, with three of those coming in a span of just over a minute. Teammate J.R. Smith who had a team high ten rebounds, continued his struggles shooting the basketball, hitting just 4-15 from the field in route to 15 points.

Roy Hibbert quietly had a superb night, registering 21 points, to go along with 12 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.

While he may be injured and unable to play, Danny Granger showed great enthusiasm on the bench as he cheered his teammates on. He often met them as they came off the floor for timeouts and was clearly a positive influence.

The Pacers will open up play in the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, May 22, when they visit the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. Games one and two will be played there before the series shifts back to Indiana.

Danny Bridges can be reached at (317) 578-1780 or at Bridgeshd@aol.com.

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