A chicken-or-egg quandary surrounds the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers.
Did Nate McMillan learn how to coach the instant Lance Stephenson returned? Or was it the former’s guidance that vaulted Stephenson back to NBA significance when 29 other franchises displayed little to no interest in acquiring the impulsive 6-foot-5 swingman?
Maybe a little of both.
Whatever the case, the Pacers, interesting as plain oatmeal through the first 76 games of the 2016-17 regular season, are off to the postseason as the No. 7 seed in the incredibly average Eastern Conference.
And now, believe it or not, anything is possible.
Indiana has a face — Stephenson’s.
Indiana has swag, thanks to Stephenson.
Indiana is playing with confidence. An edge. See above.
Credit to team president Larry Bird for bringing the most controversial player in recent Pacers history not named Ron Artest back. A move initially met primarily with shoulder shrugs and eye rolls saved a season and perhaps McMillan’s job, though critics no doubt wonder what took Bird so long.
Hindsight being 20/20 convinces us Indiana could have been a No. 3, 4 or 5 seed had Bird acted sooner.
Really, though, we don’t know.
Putting Stephenson back in a Pacers uniform earlier might have had a detrimental effect given all the other new acquisitions.
Remember, this is Lance Stephenson we’re talking about.
Ear blower. Gag-sign specialist. Instigator.
Therein lies the brilliance of Stephenson’s game. Even in a backup role, he jumps high-tops-first into the opponent’s collective psyche, drawing a portion of focus away from teammates Paul George, Jeff Teague, Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young.
Bird, who purportedly could fill 10 dumpsters with all the trash he talked during his playing career with the Boston Celtics, appreciates the importance the mental aspect plays in the NBA’s nightly version of thrust-and-parry.
So he brought Lance back, and the Indiana Pacers haven’t been the same since.
How Indiana fares in its upcoming seven-game playoff series against No. 2 seed and defending NBA champion Cleveland is anyone’s guess.
As is the case with all 2 vs. 7 situations, the Pacers are expected to make a quick exit — five games, at most — pick up whatever parting gifts are available and dribble quietly into the off-season.
I would fall in line with such thinking if it was the milquetoast pre-Stephenson version of the Pacers. Now I’m not so sure.
A confident Indiana ballclub is capable of muddying the playoff waters. If the Pacers don’t win the first-round series outright, there remains the likelihood of pushing the series to six or seven games while planting seeds of doubt in the minds of LeBron Nation.
But with Stephenson signing a three-year, $12 million deal, fans should be as excited for next season as they are for next week.
McMillan’s team might not be considered one of the league’s front-runners, but it won’t be boring, either.