One of the subplots to monitor in a playoff series that suddenly got a lot more entertaining is Lance Stephenson’s next act. What will the Pacers guard do to annoy the Heat in Game 6? Give LeBron James a wedgie?
“Buffoonery,” is how Ray Allen described Stephenson’s antics during Indiana’s 93-90 escape on Wednesday.
But give Stephenson credit. He was effective. The 6-5 splinter got under James’ skin. He also got in his face and his ear. He not only slipped inside James’ head but toilet-papered it, too.
Stephenson says he will do whatever he can to help his team win, etiquette be damned. His fearlessness was infectious on a night when the Pacers were desperate. He set a cocksure tone on defense that Indiana lacked in three consecutive losses when they passively allowed the Heat to run over them.
He was also laugh-out-loud hilarious, which helped loosen up the Pacers and rouse the home crowd. Although Allen and Chris Bosh later scolded him for being a brat, he adds humor to a sports culture that is too often deadly serious.
The Heat has a second chance to close out the Eastern Conference finals Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena and can’t let the Lance factor detour them back to Indianapolis for a deciding Game 7. Stephenson has the same dynamic qualities as Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, but his talent gets obscured by his cheeky style.
Nor can they let Paul George have another career-making performance. Down 3-2, it looks pretty hopeless for Indiana. The Heat is 13-4 in elimination games in the Big 3 era. But these Pacers are dangerous — not in a menacing way but a bizarre way. As with Good Lance or Bad Lance, you don’t know if you will get the Good Pacers or the Bad Pacers. They were down 3-2 to Atlanta and survived. In both 2012 and 2013, they managed to snatch games in Miami.
No doubt Heat players and coaches slept soundly after Wednesday’s setback. James, handcuffed by fouls, played half the game and the Heat still could have pulled out a win in those madcap final minutes.
James has already set a precedent. In Game 4, after Stephenson theorized that James’ retorts to his trash-talking were “a sign of weakness,” James played like a hornet whose nest had been poked, scoring 32 points in a 102-90 victory (and Stephenson was held scoreless through three quarters). When athletes claim they aren’t touchy about the opponents’ barbs, don’t believe them. Why do you think they call it bulletin-board material? Athletes love grabbing the chip off their shoulder and pulverizing naysayers with it. If they didn’t have that metaphorical motivation to rely upon, they would ask the trainer to tape a large rock to said shoulder.
Stephenson, humbled by the King, chastised by teammates, promised to be quiet.
But he’s a spontaneous soul. He’s “happier in my job” when he’s yapping, rapping, finger-snapping. That’s how he played growing up in Coney Island.
So, in Game 5, assigned to defend the Heat’s best, Stephenson goaded James and Dwyane Wade into gaffes, including an awkward airball by James. It was no coincidence that James was in foul trouble all night and that the fifth one, with 8:34 left in the third quarter, was caused by Stephenson as they hit the floor for a loose ball.
Stephenson flopped like a Spaghetti Western gunslinger when James elbowed him lightly, but didn’t get that call. He consistently angled his body into and under James, and James finished 2 for 10.
“I just tried to take away his airspace,” Stephenson said.
When this series is done, two of its indelible images will have been authored by Stephenson. In the first, he eavesdropped on a mini-huddle with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. He stuck his head into their conversation and nodded. In a delayed reaction, Spoelstra registered a pinched look of, “What the?” Stephenson maintained his glare. Bill Murray could not have played the scene better.
Cameras also captured Stephenson blowing a puff of air into James’ ear as they leaned on their knees next to each other. When he realized that, yes, Stephenson had done something strangely intimate and strangely childish at crunch time in a playoff game, James could only shake his head and suppress a smile.
“That’s Lance being Lance,” George said. “I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for LeBron.”
James — the subject of a choke pantomime by Stephenson two years ago — dismissed Stephenson’s “extracurricular activities” and emphasized that Heat players are “professionals” who are above such nonsense.
Everybody has played against a Lance Stephenson at some point. The smartass catcher in Little League. The standup comedian on the defensive line. The tennis player whose pre-serve ritual takes longer than a wait in an airport TSA line.
Muhammad Ali was a master of gamesmanship. His baiting of Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier trapped them in energy-wasting states of rage. He proved that the head game is worth winning.
Larry Bird was one of the game’s most underrated trash talkers because his aw-shucks, hick-from-French Lick, poker-faced exterior belied his wickedly droll taunts.
Michael Jordan was just plain mean as he broke down opponents like an interrogator seeking a confession.
Stephenson temporarily unnerved the Heat, but he better be ready for the wrath of James.
Lest you think James is gnashing his teeth over Stephenson, he did permit himself a chuckle. Asked if he had ever considered blowing in someone’s ear as a defensive tactic, James was, thankfully, as funny as his rival.
“I blew in my wife’s ear before,” he said. “That was definitely a defensive tactic.”