In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Try to irritate Miami Heat’s LeBron James and see what you find

 
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 <span class="cutline_leadin">Busting through:</span> LeBron James cuts through the Indiana Pacers’ defense during the second quarter.
Busting through: LeBron James cuts through the Indiana Pacers’ defense during the second quarter.
Hector Gabino / Staff Photo
WEB VOTE What will be the most likely matchup in the NBA Finals?

gcote@ MiamiHerald.com

You remember that old song, the one that advised, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.” Well, a modern remake might now safely add this third absolute: You don’t irritate LeBron James.

Somebody inform Lance Stephenson.

Wait. Oh, sorry. Too late.

The Heat swamped the Indiana Pacers, 102-90, here Monday night for a commanding 3-1 lead in this NBA Eastern Conference finals series, and the fuel and the reason for it all was a prodded, jabbed, aggressive, determined LeBron.

James can be dominant when he is barely interested. When he is angry or feels disrespected, he can be unstoppable. The best player in basketball has nothing to prove. But when he feels he does? Stand back, and watch him score 31 points with 10 rebounds as he did Monday – including 14 in the third quarter when a close game poured Miami’s way.

Watch James grab a rebound, dribble the length of the court, muscle past Paul George for a slam-dunk late in the third, then pound his chest and glare defiantly into the thunder from the downtown bayside arena, a King in full reign.

The Pacers’ Stephenson in the buildup to this game noted James had been trash-talking him in the previous game and called that “a sign of weakness,” adding, “I’m getting under his skin.”

To which Chris Bosh all but snorted, “If getting in his head is averaging 27 points, then I hope he stays there.”

Stephenson had to admit afterward, “He played great. He was in attack mode. I tried to get into his head. I guess he stepped up.”

LeBron dismissed Stephenson’s cape-tugging mind-games, saying, “I have no reaction. I grinned. I got a smirk out of it”

Then he told the truth:

“It can help at times, for sure,” he said of parlaying the added motivation. “I’ve done it before. Depends what kind of mood I’m in.”

Monday, LeBron was in the mood to not only take over the game offensively, but also to defend Stephenson maniacally, getting him in early foul trouble, knocking him off rhythm and holding him to nine points.

Young Lance – who began this series by publicly questioning the health of Dwyane Wade’s knee – appears to be a slow learner. There is a history.

In the 2012 playoffs against Miami Stephenson made a choke sign from the bench after James missed a late free throw.

The next game James scored 40 points with 18 rebounds and nine assists.

Remember in the Brooklyn series earlier this month when the Nets’ Paul Pierce got chatty and said some trash at the final whistle that drew a long glare from James?

That was right before LeBron buried Brooklyn with a 49-point game.

Now, this … and James pops his second-most points since the first round.

“He’s the best player in the world,” said Indiana coach Frank Vogel, of James. “He’s going to get going. You just have to make everything difficult for him.”

Even Stephenson’s own teammates wished their 23-year-old teammate had kept his mouth shut.

Said Paul George: “He’s doing it to the wrong guy. LeBron feeds off that.”

Sumptuously.

Pacer David West, asked if he’d been worried Stephenson had ‘created a monster’ in James, said, “You mean more than what he normally is?” West said Stephenson should not have provided bulletin-board material.

Added George: “You know, Lance is young, and that’s a teaching point, a learning lesson. Sometimes you got to watch what you say. You’re on a big stage. We got to be smarter with situations.”

As the Heat’s Norris Cole put it, “Sometimes LeBron gets in that gear when he has to prove a point.”

George inexplicably said afterward he thought Indiana outplayed Miami, calling it “demoralizing” that the Heat had 34 free throws to the Pacers’ 17. He called that disparity “home cooking,” inviting for himself a hefty NBA fine.

Told what George had said, LeBron perused the stat sheet and, after a pause, parried.

“We had 20 points off turnovers,” noted James. “That don’t have anything to do with the free throw line.”

Miami led wire-to-wire because Bosh was big early Monday, en fuego in the first quarter en route to 25 points as Miami avoided the sluggish starts of previous games. “His teammates were really aggressive in trying to get him involved,” said Heat coach Erik Spolestra. “That’s nice to see when your brothers are doing that.”

Said Bosh: “We were able to dictate the tempo and change it into our game.”

Big as Bosh was, though, James was even bigger, proving a point, taking the thorn Stephenson had jabbed in his side and using it to deflate Indiana’s realistic hopes of winning this series.

Vogel had chosen a parable to describe his team’s situation against the Heat entering this Game 4, and in general.

“The little brother spends his whole life getting beat up by the big brother, getting beaten in sports,” Vogel told his Pacers just before this game. “All those years of getting beat up builds him up to the point where he ultimately takes on the big brother. Then he’s got to make that decision. He’s not going to lose that fight any more!”

It was soon after that when LeBron and Miami offered their reply to what Vogel meant as fiery oratory:

Not yet, lil’ bro, Miami’s performance said.

Not yet.

See, sometimes, in real life, that decision to stop losing is not the little brother’s to make.

Sometimes the big brother stays bigger, and stronger, and gets the girl, and keeps winning.

So it continues in this Heat-Pacers rivalry, with Monday’s wire-to-wire dominance despite the injury absence of key reserve Chris (Birdman) Andersen.

Miami’s 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series means Indiana must now win three consecutive games to avoid being eliminated from the playoffs by its nemesis Heat for a third consecutive season.

That means the Heat are hugely likely to return again to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season in search of a third straight championship.

Big Brother isn’t just watching. Big Brother keeps winning.

And the biggest of Miami’s brothers in arms, LeBron James, keeps reminding us – and now reminding Lance Stephenson – who’s in charge.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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