The Indiana Pacers were reeling in March. A team that had seemed a sure bet to make the playoffs was quickly sinking in the standings amidst a 6-10 month, but a familiar face has generated a spark as the Pacers prepare to visit the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
Indiana had lost seven of nine heading into March following a seven-game January win streak and a six-game February losing streak. The Pacers had fallen from 29-22 to 37-39 as the month concluded. They found themselves in the thick of a packed Eastern Conference playoff race, trying to fend off the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat for one of the last spots.
Pacers star Paul George was calling out his team’s effort and competitive spirit at the time. The Pacers were trying to regain their footing and stay in the playoff race while teams above them struggled just as much and teams below them were catching up.
Indiana turned to a former franchise fixture in an effort to rejuvenate the roster. Few anticipated the decision to bring back Lance Stephenson would work out so well and be as popular as it has been thus far.
Stephenson made his Pacers debut in a 135-130 double-overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team has won two in a row since then with Stephenson sparking a new edge to the team — even if it is over something as silly as late-game layups.
Stephenson is averaging 8.3 points, two rebounds and 3.7 assists in 22 minutes per game in three appearances for the Pacers so far. His contributions have helped stabilize the team and aided Indiana in posting consecutive wins for the first time since that long winning streak to end January.
“At this point, we need everybody,” George said following Thursday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks, according to The Indianapolis Star. “It’s only going to help us going down the stretch if everybody is feeling involved and everybody knowing that they played a big role in our success, not just me going out and trying to save the team night after night.”
That was at least part of the reason the Pacers reached out to Stephenson. When the Pacers were competing for championships, Stephenson was the triple-double machine that helped keep everyone involved.
Adding new players to a roster can generate renewed excitement for teams getting through the dregs of the season. And these final few games certainly can drag on and become monotonous, even for teams in the playoff race. The Pacers got their shot in the arm from Stephenson as they try to rekindle the playoff spark.
Orlando was also searching for something when it signed Marcus Georges-Hunt and Patricio Garino late in the season. The two D-League prospects proved to be critical players in the Magic’s 115-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, playing their first meaningful minutes in their young NBA careers.
Georges-Hunt scored five straight points midway through the fourth quarter to take a seven-point lead back to 12 and keep the Nets from making a serious push for the win. He finished the game with eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
“It was real big being that coach believed in me and gave me the opportunity to finish with the first group,” Georges-Hunt said after the game. “It gave me even more confidence and made me take it up a notch more.”
Whether Orlando coach Frank Vogel turns back to Georges-Hunt is another matter. Vogel said before Thursday’s game he was using the game to test out some of his younger players. He played Terrence Ross only 24 minutes and used him sparingly in the second half. Bismack Biyombo logged only six minutes. Vogel said he would likely return to his normal rotation against the Pacers on Saturday.