The arrival of Lance Stephenson in Hollywood was something that either made you cringe or made you smile. He’s the unopened box of Christmas toys; there’s no telling what joys or horrors are waiting inside for you. There have been joyful moments, horrific moments, hilarious moments, sad moments, and just moments that make you want to wonder what you’re even doing with your life. Everyone’s clamored for more minutes to go Stephenson, though. Perhaps Friday night was a sign of why, and also a step in the right direction.
Prior to Friday night’s game, Stephenson had played a grand total of 251 minutes. 133 of those 251 minutes were spent with the core four starters, and the lineup had produced a +13.3 Net Rating. There was definitely reason for optimism going forward with production like that. The unit played fast, loose, and used their individual abilities to set the tone for the entire lineup. Due to the constant jostling of lineups by Doc Rivers, it was uncertain as to when Stephenson would even get time with those guys again. Tonight was that night.
In their first time playing together since November 20, and only their second time together since November 11, the lineup of Stephenson with the other four main starters produced a Net Rating of +102.0 in 7 minutes. Yes, that’s right – a +102.0 Net Rating. They simply decimated whatever the New Orleans Pelicans tried to do in that stretch; so much so that it put the Los Angeles Clippers on the path to success. However, Stephenson’s contributions went far beyond just that lineup. He even shined with other bench members. So, let’s dive into the footage and see the positive things that he did in this game.
We begin shortly after he checked into the game, with Josh Smith bringing the ball across midcourt and handing it off to Austin Rivers. For all the grief that Rivers gets for not being a willing passer as a point guard, he sure was here. Rivers gets a screen from Smith, takes it down the lane while drawing three defenders towards him, and kicks it out to the left corner where Stephenson is waiting. Because Luke Babbitt gives a pretty spirited closeout, Stephenson tries to attack him. Stephenson goes right, gets walled off, then spins back the other way to throw up an awkward left-handed layup that somehow spun in. It was wild, out of control, and dazzling. It was Lance.
To start this all off, we must first applaud Rivers’ ability to get into the paint and then pass out of the paint when he saw an opportunity to do so. Secondly, we must applaud Stephenson’s recognition of the closeout and the need for him to take a subpar defender off the dribble. Lastly, let’s applaud the finish. It looked like a hot mess, but it worked. That’s probably the most amazing part about all of this. There should be no earthly way the ball went through the net, yet here we are.
Up next, we get to see Lance Stephenson in transition. He’s casually bringing the ball up the court, then throws a quick right-to-left power dribble just above the top of the arc. The crossover is designed to get Stephenson into the lane and towards the rim. Instead, Ish Smith is right in his tracks, and takes the full-on contact from Stephenson. There’s no foul called on the play, nor should there be. As Smith is backpeddling after the contact, Stephenson finds a cutting Austin Rivers with a no-look pass for a layup. Once again, a lot of Lance going on here.
This play shows what Lance can do if asked to be a creator. He can find his fun. That’s something that has plagued this team quite a bit this season – no one seems to be having any fun. This game showed what can happen when you actually do find it and use it to play. Stephenson hustles into the paint, draws a defender, gets other defenders to look at him rather than their man, and he found an open cutter for points. Quality stuff.
A few minutes later we get to see Stephenson with the starters. Here, Stephenson gets the rebound and immediately motors up the court. He sprints full speed into the frontcourt, and draws Luke Babbitt as his primary defender. This is a mismatch. Stephenson takes the ball right into the body of Babbitt, draws the foul, and throws up an awkward right-handed push shot that doesn’t go in. Drawing the foul is the big prize here, but the sheer motor Stephenson showcased on this play gave an indication as to what he can do. He got a rebound, and in four seconds he drew a foul on the other end. He went coast-to-coast in four seconds. Marvel at that.
Stephenson can be quite good defensively at times despite his penchant for getting lazy off the ball. He didn’t do that on this play, though. Stephenson is the primary defender on Ish Smith, and starts to follow him along the baseline until he spots Anthony Davis getting the ball on a pick-and-roll. The pass led Davis into a wide open jumper from the nail, but Stephenson aggressively charged at Davis and forced him to shuffle his feet long enough so that Blake Griffin could get back into the play and help. This then makes Davis give the ball up, but Stephenson had retreated back to the perimeter to guard Alonzo Gee, who J.J. Redick switched off of to take Ish Smith under the hoop. Davis throws the pass to Gee, Stephenson gets a finger on the pass, the ball goes off of Gee’s fingertips, and the Clippers get the ball.
This was an engaged defensive play by everyone. Stephenson gave up the baseline cutter to disrupt the deadlier option. This disruption forced Davis to get squirrely, which in turn allowed Griffin to recover and force a pass, which Stephenson disrupted again by rotating back in time. The entire defense moved as one, and Lance Stephenson helped not only stop a wide open jumper, but he then got back into proper position to affect the next thing. As an aside, it looks like Anthony Davis first messed up his right knee on this play. No idea if that had anything to do with what happened later on.
One of the awesome things about the Clipper bench is their stuff in transition. Here, we get Paul Pierce dribbling up the court before passing off to Josh Smith. From there, Smith lobs a pass to Lance Stephenson cutting from the left wing, and Stephenson jams the ball home with some massive authority. It’s a 3-on-2 break that the Clippers execute perfectly. While the running angles of Pierce and Smith were awkward, Stephenson’s was not. He saw the defenders key in on the two runners in front of them, and they left him completely uncovered. Stephenson takes advantage by sneaking in behind them, and Smith located him quickly enough to make this thing happen. Running the floor and being in proper position is a huge thing for Stephenson going forward.
A minute later, we get more of Stephenson as a creator and ball-handler. He and Josh Smith run a simple pick-and-roll at the top of the arc. Smith slips the screen after making contact with New Orleans’ Smith, and Stephenson gets wide enough to occupy Ryan Anderson defensively. Smith starts his roll, and Stephenson feathers a beautiful bounce pass in-between the two defenders perfectly. Smith gathers, avoids a rip by Gee, and dunks the ball to push the Clippers’ lead above 20.
This is something of relative beauty by Stephenson and Smith. It definitely seems like these two actually enjoy playing together, as well as with Austin Rivers. Perhaps there’s some kind of chemstiry or bond building with that unit. We have no idea yet, but plays like this are certainly interesting. Stephenson ran the pick-and-roll expertly, found Smith with a gorgeous pass, and Smith did the thing to finish it. These are the kinds of plays the team expected out of both men this year.
A few possessions later, we get to see more of what Stephenson can do in various spots on the floor. Stephenson passes to Smith at the left wing, and then proceeds to cut into the paint for a post-up against Toney Douglas. Smith recognizes the mismatch, passes to Stephenson at the base of the free throw circle, and Stephenson then starts to go to work. Because of the mismatch, Ish Smith leaves Austin Rivers wide open in the left corner. Smith dives down to help on a possible Stephenson move to the bucket. When Stephenson turns to his left and shot fakes, he spots Rivers wide open. Stephenson makes the pass, Rivers makes the shot, and the Clippers are humming along once again.
This play is interesting simply because it shows you another way the team can use Stephenson on offense. Rather than just spacing him out on the perimeter and hoping he hits the vast majority of his open shots, the team can post him up against a smaller defender after switches, and let him operate in an area of the court that better suits his needs and skills. Stephenson draws the defense, kicks to the shooter, and gets an assist. More of this is definitely needed. The team has a treasure chest full of goodies, they just have to figure out which areas they work best in.
This is simply a play where Stephenson sits in the right corner as a pick-and-roll is being ran and awaits a pass. This is no different than what the Clippers starting lineup does. Rivers receives a screen from Luc Mbah a Moute, and proceeds to get downhill into the paint with a probe dribble. As he does so, the defense starts to choke down on both him and Josh Smith along the baseline. Four of the five Pelicans defenders are actually watching the ball while in the paint. Rivers spots Stephenson wide open in the corner, hits him with a pass, and Stephenson nails the three. Good vision by Rivers, good shot by Stephenson, good offense all-around.
To visually help you with this play, imagine that Austin Rivers is Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute is Blake Griffin, Josh Smith is DeAndre Jordan, and Jamal Crawford is J.J. Redick. Using that visual aid, you now realize you’ve seen this play plenty of times. It’s a simple 1-4 pick-and-roll with Jordan pinned along the baseline for an alley-oop attempt or dump pass if the defenders leave him. It’s also got the option of the small forward in the corner if the defense leaves him alone, as well. They ran the play, found an open man, and Stephenson was the beneficiary. You have to love that.
Finally, we get Peak Lance. Crawford feeds the ball to Stephenson after a rebound, and Stephenson absolutely motors into the frontcourt. Stephenson draws three defenders towards him, delivers an undeniably pinpoint behind-the-back pass to Mbah a Moute, and the former UCLA player dunks the ball home. Stephenson is sensational here. From the time he receives the ball to the time the ball goes through the hoop, only four seconds elapse. Attacking a defense like this only leads to positive things.
Sure, the pass is flashy and all that, but Stephenson’s ability to get downhill at breakneck speed and occupy opposing defenders is something the team sorely needs. It’s one of the things the team thought they would get out of him this season, so to see it for brief glimpses here and there are a welcome sign. He’ll need to do it more often, but last night was a step in the right direction. It was certainly interesting to see how much playing time he got, and it seems like that was a byproduct of how much energy he brought to the team when he was on the floor.
There’s no telling how much Doc Rivers is going to play Lance Stephenson on a game-by-game basis, but if Stephenson keeps making contributions like this then there’s no way Rivers can keep him on the sidelines all that often. While he is shooting under 40 percent on the year, he is shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc. As long as he can keep that up, as well as the timely passing and defense, then we might actually get to see a lot more of Indiana Lance than Charlotte Lance – and that’s the most important thing with this experiment right now. As for last night, we got pretty good Lance.