Miami Heat

Pacers’ Lance Stephenson playing head games with Miami Heat’s LeBron James

Lance Stephenson has always enjoyed trying to annoy LeBron James. On Tuesday night in Indianapolis, he finally succeeded.

Who is Lance Stephenson, you’re probably wondering?

He might be the NBA’s best up-and-comer you’ve never heard of. In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, he was the Pacers defender who spent the entire second half trying to stare a hole through James’ head.

It was an attempt at defense by intimidation, and it appeared to somehow work against the best basketball player on the planet.

Though not as overt as the choking gesture he made during last year’s playoffs, Stephenson’s unspoken message to James in Game 4 was one of open rebellion against the league’s self-stylized king. He wanted everyone in the building to know that he wasn’t bowing down to James.

“It was creative,” Chris Bosh quipped sarcastically of Stephenson’s approach.

And oddly effective.

If James wasn’t exactly intimidated by Stephenson’s tough-guy facial expressions and defensive tactics, then the four-time MVP certainly seemed unnerved by Stephenson’s constant presence.

James committed four fouls in the final seven minutes of the game and fouled out with 56 seconds to play. It was only the second time he has fouled out in the postseason in his career.

James said after the game that Stephenson played well offensively but wouldn’t acknowledge the third-year player’s defensive pressure.

“If you are sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one matchup between me and Lance Stephenson, I’m not going to harp on that,” James said.

In other words, James was unwilling to give Stephenson any credit as a defender just as he seemed unwilling to make eye contact with Stephenson during all those uncomfortable moments in the second half. (At one point, it even seemed like Stephenson was trying to blow in James’ ear.)

Stephenson isn’t going away even if James won’t look him in the eye.

Even Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called the Brooklyn-born wing an “X-factor” in the series. Spoelstra also was reluctant to give Stephenson much credit, probably because of his obvious attempt to throw James off his game by any means necessary.

Remember when James tweaked his ankle after stepping on Stephenson’s foot late in the fourth quarter? It seemed inadvertent (after all, James stepped on Stephenson’s foot), but NBA veterans will tell you that’s one of the oldest (and dirtiest) tricks in the book.

“He had that big bucket down the stretch,” Spoelstra said of Stephenson when asked about how he thought Stephenson impacted the game. “You can say there was the momentum changing three-pointer at the end of the third, but really that was irrelevant by the time we got down to the last stretch of the fourth.”

The three-pointer was hardly irrelevant in terms of confidence building for Stephenson and the Pacers in a series that now has been reduced to a best-of-3 set.

James was whistled for his second foul of the game with two seconds left in the third quarter and, after a timeout, Stephenson drilled a buzzer-beating three-pointer from the corner over Dwyane Wade to give Indiana a 77-70 lead entering the final period.

“I’m going to be truthfully honest, Lance is a great player for us,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “He’s still young. This is really his rookie season despite the years he has. He’s playing constant minutes this year.”

Outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stephenson is still a relatively unknown basketball player. Before these Eastern Conference finals, most Heat fans (and players) really only knew him as the bench warmer who made the universal sign for choking when James missed a key free throw in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Stephenson’s stature around the league — not to mention his confidence on the court — has grown steadily throughout the 2013 playoffs.

His effort in Game 6 against the Knicks (25 points and 10 rebounds) propelled the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals and he has continued to emerge against the defending champions.

He is averaging 11.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game in the series, and on Tuesday, outplayed his Heat counterpart, Wade.

“He has to grow up and continues to grow,” Hibbert said. “He’s being thrown into the fire having to guard D-Wade and LeBron.”

And he seems to be enjoying the heat, and the Heat.

Stephenson begged Pacers coach Frank Vogel to let him guard James after teammate Paul George found himself in foul trouble. Vogel granted the request (really he had no better option) and Stephenson went to work with his mind games on James.

James’ three-pointer over Stephenson with 1:20 to play cut the Pacers’ lead to 94-92, but Stephenson answered on Indiana’s following possession with a tough shot from eight feet that ran the Pacers’ lead back to four points.

James caught Stephenson’s made basket as it dropped through the cylinder, slammed it back into the hardwood and screamed with frustration. Seconds later, he fouled out of the game setting an illegal screen against Stephenson.

“I didn’t believe it was an offensive foul,” James said. “I was going to set a screen, and it felt like I was stationary. … Lance actually ran into me.”

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