Basketball / Sports

Miami Heat guard Ray Allen passes off the ball while driving past Indiana Pacers guard Paul George during the first half in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday, May 18, 2014, in Miami. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/MCT)

Pacers' Lance Stephenson shines in Game 1

INDIANAPOLIS -- Lance Stephenson was completely caught off guard by the question.

After the Indiana Pacers' victory against the Miami Heat on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, he was asked if he gained confidence from his performance the final game of the previous series.

Without hesitation, Stephenson answered in a way only he could.

"Nah, I'm always confident," Stephenson said.

The brash kid from New York City was his usual confident self in helping the Pacers grab a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. He finished with 17 points and eight assists in the 107-96 win. Unlike past games in this playoff rivalry, Stephenson did his talking on the court.

"If you're not confident in what you're going to do, it's not going to happen," Stephenson said. "You've got to be confident, make the right plays every time and eliminate your turnovers."

There was a time Stephenson made headlines for everything but his play on the court. Two years ago, he got into a confrontation with Heat forward Juwan Howard. Earlier this season, he was ejected after jawing with Dwyane Wade.

More recently, he began this series by saying Wade's knee was "kind of messed up." Pacers forward Paul George said Stephenson has done a better job of controlling his emotions.

"He's learned to be a professional," George said. "He's just an emotional person. That's what we need, though. We need a guy with that energy, that toughness. He gets out of hand sometimes but we can live with most of it."

Stephenson will always have a swagger about him. Now, he's just learned to control it more. On Sunday, he had just two turnovers in 41 minutes. The only poor shot he took was a long 3-pointer in the fourth quarter with the Pacers holding a comfortable lead.

"I just think his edge always helps us, but I thought he played, although one really bad shot, I thought he played really intelligent," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He really just attacked, read the defense really well and found the open man. I think he was a big part of our offensive attack."

Added forward David West, "He's got an unbelievable basketball IQ. He's one of the more versatile guards in the league in terms of his ability to create plays for himself. He sees plays a few play ahead. We trust him with the basketball."

Stephenson struggled during the previous round against the Washington Wizards' youthful backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. He finally had a breakout in the series-clinching Game 6 victory. He said the difference is finding a balance between being confident and playing smart.

"I just watch myself sometimes," Stephenson said. "I just feel like I'm doing too much sometimes. Now, I just stay poised. When I make something happen, I just keep the same face the whole game. I don't show my expressions."

He even referred to Wade as a "superstar" after the game, perhaps showing he's learned to respect the opposition. The matchup against the future Hall of Famer has brought out the best in Stephenson the past few years.

"I would hope so," Wade said. "That would mean I did something in my career. Matchups in this game, I don't know the percentage of time we were matched up on each other but Lance is a competitor and I'm a competitor. So I'm sure we both enjoy it."

The next step in the maturation process is completely removing the "showtime" from his game. When he entered the league 2010-11, he was mostly known for his tendency to play like he was at "Rucker Park," the infamous basketball venue in New York City.

So it's a victory when Stephenson completes a game where he plays under control.

"I was basic today," Stephenson said. "I just made the right plays. I didn't really do any crossovers, nothing flashy. I just played simple basketball and made the right plays every time."

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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