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Lance Stephenson: Pacers missing ‘never-bow-down-to-anyone’ mentality, but I can help

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lance Stephenson realized long ago that it was a mistake to leave the Indiana Pacers.

So when Larry Bird called with an offer to come back and jump-start his career, the tough, 26-year-old guard shed tears of joy.

On Friday, about 24 hours after the Pacers made the signing official and Paul George welcomed him home with a text message, Stephenson returned to his old stomping grounds, looking for ways to help the Pacers make yet another playoff run.

“I was in New York rehabbing. I was like: `Man, I keep getting hurt. I guess I’ll worry about next year,”‘ Stephenson said. “When I got the call, I said: `Are you kidding? The Indiana Pacers? I’m going home.”

Plenty has changed since Stephenson last wore an Indiana uniform in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

George and Lavoy Allen are the only other players still around from that team.

Stephenson’s familiar No. 1 jersey is now being worn by Kevin Seraphin, so Stephenson will switch to No. 6.

And instead of fighting for the top seed, the Pacers are struggling just to make the postseason.

They started Friday tied with Miami for seventh in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of Chicago with seven to play. Indiana was scheduled to visit Toronto Friday night.

The Bulls have an easier schedule over the final stretch, the Heat own the tiebreaker over Indiana and the Pacers are still down two key backups – center Al Jefferson and forward Glenn Robinson III. A sprained left ankle is expected to keep Jefferson out until the final week of the regular season. Robinson could return next week from a strained left calf.

And as Stephenson has watched from afar, he thinks he can help Indiana turn things around with a new attitude.

“I think the thing they’re missing is that energy and that never bow-down-to-anyone (mentality),” he said.

That was certainly a trademark of Stephenson’s first stint in Indy.

The question is how long will it take him to make an impact this time?

He’s fought through injuries all season, and after brief stops in New Orleans and Minnesota, Stephenson figured his fate this season would be measured in 10-day contracts.

Instead, Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations offered him a three-year deal – the first two guaranteed, the third a team option. It was too good to refuse.

“He’s probably the only guy who believed in my game,” Stephenson said. “He always pushed me, he always challenged me. To have that guy behind you is incredible.”

Stephenson insists he has changed since leaving, too.

He’s sporting a beard and the family members that lived with him in Indianapolis before now live in Las Vegas.

And after playing for five teams in less than three seasons, Stephenson said he has learned more about basketball, himself and how to be a better leader. Heck, he even laughed off a question about a possible rematch with LeBron James on Sunday in Cleveland, declining to answer a question that rekindled images of Stephenson blowing in James’ ear during the 2014 conference finals.

But the Pacers brought back the 6-foot-5 guard for one reason: They want Stephenson to play with the same, old passion that made him a fan favorite the first time around.

“I think I can help these guys on the defensive end, and bring that tough edge about bowing down to no one,” he said. “I’ve got this year and next year, so I’ve got a lot of time to prove myself and show that I can get back to where I was.”

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.