by Mark Montieth | firstname.lastname@example.org
May 29, 2014 | 2:45 AM
The Pacers have this phrase they use about defending LeBron James: Make him smell your breath.
Lance Stephenson took that literally Wednesday as he took on the player widely-regarded as the best in the world, blowing in James' ear while they stood next to one another during a dead ball in the second half of the Pacers' 93-90 win in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
“I hope his breath wasn't too bad for LeBron,” Paul George said.
Stephenson's teammates call this kind of thing “Lance being Lance.” Stephenson also made it a point to listen in while Miami coach Erik Spoelstra talked with a few of his players courtside, and chimed in with a question or comment. He also did his best to be his irritating self, bumping players and making his presence felt as often as possible.
Stephenson's teammates approve of all this, as long as he doesn't go too far into the deep end of drama. Whether he did that this time was a matter of opinion, but the result justified the methods from their point of view. Stephenson finished with 12 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals and just two turnovers in 43 minutes – the kind of solid but unspectacular game which usually works best for the Pacers.
“You take the good and the bad,” Roy Hibbert said. “But he was focused and he had an agenda tonight to just play smart and not do a lot of talking.”
Hibbert hadn't yet heard about Stephenson's flirtation with James when he made that comment. Told of it, he stopped.
“He what now?” Hibbert asked.
Told that yes, indeed, Stephenson had blown in James' ear, Hibbert smiled.
“I mean, Lance, you know, just, I mean, he does stuff,” Hibbert said. “In practice, he tries to get under everybody's skin. He's trying to D me up and grabbing my rib. If it works, it works. You hear all this stuff in the ‘90s about how guys defend people, so guys blowing in his ear is not that big of a deal.
“For the most part, he's been level-headed the past couple of days. He hasn't been playing around. He's been professional the last couple of days.”
Hibbert sounded a valid warning, though: “You just hope he doesn't poke the bear.”
That would be James, who figures to be in a cranky mood after hibernating for half of Wednesday's game because of foul trouble. James shrugged off repeated questions about Stephenson's tactic, but nobody would be surprised to see him look for revenge on Friday.
“I don't really—I mean, I'm just here to play basketball, man,” James said. “All the extracurricular activities, I don't get into.
“All the extra, whatever Lance wants to deal with, I don't really care about that.”
Media relations director David Benner, teammate Rasual Butler and vice-president of player relations Clark Kellogg all sat nearby to keep an ear on things while Stephenson talked with reporters afterward. He didn't speak out of turn, relying on his go-to quote about taking away the opponent's air space and shrugging off all questions about blowing in James' ear.
“Just playing physical basketball,” he said, smiling. “Doing whatever it takes to get the W. We all played good. I'm just happy we got the W tonight. Just having fun and playing ball.”
And what about listening in on Spoelstra's huddle?
“I just wanted to hear what he had to say about what they were trying to do on offense,” Stephenson said. “They were trying to run a pick and roll and I wanted to hear it.”
Stephenson had drawn attention to himself in Miami for claiming he was getting in James' head, but followed with a quiet game on Monday: nine points, five rebounds, four assists, five fouls. He seems to have struggled with how to approach the game this season, sometimes talking about cutting out his “antics,” but other times doing things – such as on Wednesday – that could be described as “antics.”
All in all, the Pacers prefer Lance to be Lance.
“As long as it doesn't hurt us,” David West said. “That's who he is. He's got to be himself. He's who he is. I thought he made some key plays off the ball tonight. That gets him going, that gets him motivated. He played the game and he played hard.
“He's not going to back down. At times he's been a little too passive in terms of his physicality. In order for us to win, he's got to play at a high level for us.”
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