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Pacers grab driver’s seat

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Whatever poor decisions Lance Stephenson makes on the basketball court tend to be minimal compared to the number of sequences which force fans to inch up in their seats.

Stephenson’s performance in the Indiana Pacers’ 102-97 victory against Oklahoma City on Sunday exemplified this.

Bad Lance committed a team-high four turnovers. Good Lance busted loose for his NBA-leading fifth triple-double of the season with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.

“Lance is a big part of who we are. A big part of our personality. A big part of our edge,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel after watching his team improve to 55-26, a half-game ahead of Miami in the race for the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs.

“As long as it doesn’t cross the line it’s good for us.”

Stephenson’s ice water 3-pointer with 34.3 seconds remaining proved the afternoon’s biggest basket as it gave the Pacers a 97-91 advantage.

Three-pointers by Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant combined with Indiana’s inability to convert free throws pulled the Thunder to within 99-97 with 9.5 seconds left.

Veteran forward David West took it from there, calmly sinking both his free throws at 8.3 to send the sellout crowd of 18,165 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse home content.

West’s lone block of the game, snuffing out a would-be Durant 3-point attempt from just left of the top of the key, set the table for Stephenson’s monster triple.

“That’s a common play that teams run in the NBA, particularly to try to get a quick ‘3’,” West said. “I just sniffed it out right from the start of the play.”

West led the Pacers with 21 points followed by Paul George and reserve guard C.J. Watson with 20 each. Six players cracked double-figures with Indiana’s bench outscoring Oklahoma City’s, 41-25.

“Heck of a team win against a great, great basketball team. The firepower they have is something special,” Vogel said. “For us to be able to get a quality win was big for us.”

Indiana watches with great interest Miami’s game this evening at Washington against the playoff-bound Wizards.

The Heat have two regular-season games remaining with lowly Philadelphia visiting South Beach on Wednesday. That same night Indiana plays at Orlando to conclude its regular season.

The Pacers defeated the Thunder despite 23 turnovers leading to 21 Oklahoma City points. However, with 23 assists Indiana improved to 37-5 this season when recording 20 or more assists.

Leading the way was Stephenson.

“I just tried to be an all-around player, get people in the right spots. We had to get back to that, and I felt like this was the game to do it,” Stephenson said.

“If I’m aggressive I can’t worry about turnovers. I just have to keep being aggressive and make something happen.”

Watson’s season-high point total included a sequence late in the opening period in which he drained back-to-back triples from right in front of his team’s bench.

Watson then appeared to produce a 3-pointer from the left baseline with time expiring in the first.

It would eventually be snuffed out as replays showed Watson stepped out of bounds with two-tenths of a second showing.

“We don’t win the game without (Watson) doing what he did. He was spectacular,” said Vogel, who played Watson two more minutes than he did starting point guard George Hill. “I didn’t think George was playing bad. I just thought C.J. was playing out of his mind.”

The 6-foot-9 Durant did nothing to damage his 31.9 scoring average, scoring a game-high 38 with his customary array of off-balance mid-range and long-distance shots.

Oklahoma City committed only nine turnovers, but fared poorly from the field, making only 36 of 84 (.429) field goal attempts.

The Pacers cleaned the glass for 46 rebounds compared to the Thunder’s 32. George led Indiana with 12 for his 12th double-double of the season.

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