The only possibility of any team’s dethroning the Miami Heat depends on the play of one individual player.
Not Kevin Durant because even with a fully recovered Russell Westbrook the Thunder have no inside scoring and lack the ability to play championship defense.
Not Tim Duncan and company because the Spurs had their chance last June and blew it – mainly through Gregg Popovich’s stubbornness.
Not LaMarcus Aldridge because teams that live by the jump shot die in the playoffs.
In truth, the only player who can make the difference in a playoff series against the defending champions is… Lance Stephenson.
Why Stephenson and not Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, and/or George Hill?
For sure, PG is a bona fide superstar. Depend on him to knock down some treys, use weakside picks to his advantage, create his own highly makeable shots, and even play adequate defense against LeBron James. Indeed, George has become increasingly consistent.
And that’s the point, here. For the most part, George does what he does and does it well. But it’s unreasonable to expect him to explode for 30-plus sharpshooting points over the course of an entire series against Miami. PG simply lacks the overwhelming presence (like LBJ has) to routinely dominate. Plus, LeBron’s powerhouse defense will limit George’s influence.
Hibbert will block a few shots, discourage even more, rebound at both ends, and is too tall and long to be effectively defended by Chris Bosh and/or Chris Andersen. Which is precisely why the Heat took a flyer on Greg Oden, who unfortunately is slow off his feet and can’t play quality defense without fouling.
Hibbert would be much more of a factor on offense if he’d get more touches in the low post. And much more effective on defense if he could avoid committing superfluous fouls. Plus, count the times every game where the relatively powerless Hibbert gets knocked to the floor.
Given enough time and space, West is a dependable scorer in the low post. He’s too big and strong to be checked by Shane Battier and too powerful to be inhibited by the defensive efforts of Bosh. In fact, only the foul-prone, brick shooting Chris Andersen has the size and the mettle to contain West.
However, West’s general lack of explosiveness can be exploited by Miami’s quick and mobile defense.
George Hill is an underrated man-to-man defender whose solid all-around play is a vital part of Indiana’s success. Yet he’s not really a point guard and rarely exhibits greatness.
Like West, Luis Scola is a tricky, bull-like scorer in the paint. Like West, he’s also slow, defenseless, and seldom employed as a designated point-maker. Danny Granger is gradually getting back into his groove but his limited playing time limits his impact.
As for Stephenson… While he was a schoolboy in Lincoln High School back home in Brooklyn, Stephenson’s talent was as immense as his ego. The sights and sounds of his cursing his coach was an every game occurrence. His one and only season at Cincinnati was marked as much by Stephenson’s potential as his inconsistent play. And, in 2010, the Pacers drafted him in the second round (40th overall) primarily based on this potential.
Many scouts believed that Stephenson was just one more prodigiously talented yet tragically immature young player who would never amount to much in the NBA. And for his first two seasons in Indiana, this was indeed the case. Last year, Stephenson finally showed signs of growing up and harnessing his skills.
As of this writing, he’s Indiana’s second-leading scorer (15.6 ppg), most efficient shooter (50.2 percent) and assist-maker (5.1). On the debit side, his 2.6 turnovers per game ties Stephenson with PG for the team lead in this dubious category.
Yet Stephenson’s game goes beyond his numbers.
He’s easily the best overall athlete in the squad, and just as easily the most explosive. It’s Stephenson who can create something out of nothing – sudden bursts to the hoop for unexpected scores, impossible off-balance shots that make the nets dance, magical now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t assist passes, coming from nowhere to make a steal, rising to dunk in heavy traffic. Yes, he still takes too many questionable shots and makes poor decisions with the ball, but his errors of commission and omission are rapidly decreasing. More than any other teammate, Stephenson plays on the edge of greatness and when he’s on-balance he can change any play, any game, any series.
That’s why Lance Stephenson is Indiana’s X-factor and the biggest threat to a three-peat by the Heat.