To Lance Stephenson, blowing in an ear is ‘just playing ball’ – Indianapolis Star
His morning began with words of contrition; a sort of awkward, forced repentance 36 hours after Lance Stephenson had done precisely the opposite and professed no regret for his costly comments of LeBron James.
His night ended with a crowd of reporters surrounding his locker, his voice quickened, his confidence once again strengthened. Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse offered among the more bizarre Stephenson sideshows – and certainly, that’s saying something when you’re discussing Lance Stephenson.
Game 5 of these Eastern Conference finals was a chapter filled with plenty of good and plenty of odd, an appropriate snippet into the soap opera that is at once enthralling and maddening and confounding.
And, of course, wildly unpredictable.
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There was the good: Stephenson’s relentlessly physical disposition incited an Oscar-worthy flop from Miami’s Dwyane Wade in the third quarter of Indiana’s 93-90 Game 5 victory. His 12 points, five rebounds and five assists paired nicely with a defensive effort that stifled both LeBron James and Wade at times, especially amid Indiana’s decisive fourth-quarter stand.
At times, it seemed, Stephenson was doing just enough to unseat Miami’s tandem from their comfort zone.
There was the bad: A few turnovers, some miscommunication with teammates, decisions he wishes he could have back.
Then, of course, the odd. The very odd.
Shortly after attempting to sneak into Miami’s huddle, television cameras caught Stephenson blowing into LeBron James’ ear during a late-game stoppage in play. James’ face bore his emotions plain as day, as if to say: “Is this dude kidding?”
“Buffoonery,” Heat guard Ray Allen called it after the game.
“It’s Lance being Lance,” Paul George said. “I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for LeBron.”
James, held to a playoff-career-low seven points, resisted the urge to divulge his thoughts on the incident, tempting as it was. But it wasn’t the first time, according to James, Stephenson has resorted to the blowing-in-the-ear tactic.
“We put ourselves in a position to win tonight, and as competitors, as professionals, that’s what we are,” James said. “We need one more game to get to the Finals. All the extra, whatever Lance wants to deal with, I don’t really care about that.”
Asked if he’s ever attempted a similar tactic, James laughed. Maybe to his wife, he joked.
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Stephenson likewise declined to elaborate on the maneuver.
“Just playing ball,” he said.
The night may not have been vindication for the NBA’s most condemned player over the past week, but it came close. Stephenson once again proved, in his singularly stirring yet volatile fashion, just how central he is to this Pacers’ team. His attitude drives their aggression, and his suffocating defense – paired nicely with Paul George’s 21-point fourth quarter eruption – carried the Pacers down the homestretch.
If Stephenson wasn’t back to being Stephenson on Wednesday night, Indiana might be pondering summer vacation instead of Friday’s Game 6 in South Beach.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time and believe in each other,” Stephenson said.
Frank Vogel, Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Paul George discuss Game 5, a 93-90 Indiana Pacers win over the Miami Heat.
No, don’t expect Stephenson to be calling out what he believes to be any of James’ “signs of weaknesses” any time soon. Call it the latest lesson in Lance’s long learning process.
As his teammates have come to know, as his coaches have come to know, heck, as the whole city has come to know: With Stephenson, you are forced to take the good with the bad. And you will get a lot of both.
“Every now and then, a kid has to bump into the wall himself or fall himself and then look at it and recognize, ‘Oh, that’s what they were talking about, that’s what can happen if I do this,’” said Pacers’ VP of Player Relations Clark Kellogg, who has worked with Stephenson on his maturity throughout this season.
Wednesday was back to the basketball, not the sideshow (ear-blowing notwithstanding). In signature Lance-being-Lance fashion, the fearless fourth-year pro relished his late-game assignment: Checking Miami’s two future Hall of Famers, James and Wade, on the defensive end. With his scowl seemingly tattooed on his sweaty face, Stephenson crowded the pair and refused to concede an inch.
“We took away their air space, picked them up full court and just try to pressure them,” Stephenson said. “We were just relying on our defense, trying to get easy points in transition.”
For the first night since Game 1 of this series, Indiana could rely on its defense. Stephenson was the spark. When he wasn’t blowing into James’ ear, he was goading the four-time MVP and staring down Wade. Even after all he’d been through over the past week – all the criticism, the tags of ‘immature,’ the Game 4 stinker – no, Lance Stephenson wasn’t backing down. Not tonight, not ever.
The results of Stephenson’s aggression netted five foul calls on James in just his first 13 minutes on the floor, not to mention a 2-for-10 shooting night. Stephenson delivered a critical stop late, pressuring James so tightly he forced an airballed 3-pointer.
Stephenson was a contributor once more, a much closer resemblance to the player the Pacers require if they are to finally, at long, long last, topple Miami.
At times Wednesday, his bold bravado stirred the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd into a frenzy; it’s hard to imagine it was just two nights ago in Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena that Stephenson was Public Enemy No. 1, so viciously booed after the “sign of weakness” saga that you’d think he had a “Most Wanted” target ironed on his jersey.
His words, of course, may or may not have spurred James into 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Game 4. The greater detriment was what it did to Indiana and the fragile Stephenson, who scored just one point through three quarters while the Heat built their cushion.
Any chance of him having success in that one probably evaporated the moment those words came out of his mouth.
In Game 5, the Stephenson sideshow continued, bringing with it the good, the bad and, of course, the odd.
This much we know: What comes next is anyone’s guess.
Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134. Follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.