By Sean Highkin
INDIANAPOLIS -- So much for lessons learned. Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Lance Stephenson expressed some measure of remorse over provoking LeBron James. He shouldn't have gotten into it with the four-time MVP. He needed to focus on basketball. Things would be different Wednesday.
One thing was different: the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat 93-90, sending the series back to South Beach. But it was the same Stephenson who showed up. He crowded James on shot attempts. He snuck into a Heat timeout huddle during the third quarter. He even tried blowing in James' ear during a dead ball. In other words, he did everything but focus on basketball. It worked.
If there is one constant in this series, it's this: Stephenson will not be ignored. Good or bad, it's impossible not to notice him every second he's on the floor. And on a night that featured James' worst playoff performance since the 2011 Finals (limited to seven points in 24 minutes after picking up his fifth foul less than a minute into the third quarter), Stephenson was once again the story. A career night from Paul George (37 points, five three-pointers, six rebounds and six steals) didn't keep the night from belonging to Stephenson. He was all anybody on either team could talk about after the game, despite scoring just 12 points.
After the trash-talking flap of Game 4, George all but scolded Stephenson for being unable to back up his words in a loss that featured a monster LeBron game. But his tune was different after Game 5. Sure, it's easier to excuse away something like blowing in an opponent's ear in a win than in a loss, but it's the same Stephenson. He's going to make his presence known one way or another, and George and the rest of the Pacers know that all they can do is shrug their shoulders and accept him for who he is, for better or worse.
Stephenson at his best is an explosive scorer, crafty playmaker and pesky defender who has no setting lower than fifth gear. At his worst, he's careless with the ball, gambles on defense and jacks up questionable shots. The ear-blowing may have been more overt than past incidents, but it was fundamentally the same.
"It's Lance being Lance," said George. "He's been special for us, and whether he's scoring the ball, making plays or … causing confrontation." He paused choosing that last phrase carefully. "Lance is special, and there's a reason why we gain an edge and some opportunities during games. A lot of it comes from Lance. So we need that. Again, he's always got to make sure he's monitoring it, but I didn't think nothing was out of the spirit of the game tonight."
A reporter then asked George if he'd seen the video of Stephenson blowing in James' ear.
"Yeah, I just saw it," he replied. "I hope his breath wasn't too bad for LeBron."
Any attempts to get a reaction out of James, however, were met with an incredulous stare. "We don't get involved in … things we can't control," he said after the game, taking care not to play into Stephenson's hand by outright accusing him of dirty tactics. "Lance is Lance. He's going to do what he needs to help his team win."
Eventually, James and Wade lightened up and had a little fun with the ear-blowing incident. "I blew in my wife's ear before," James said. "That was definitely a defensive tactic."
"That's the second time that's happened to you, right?" Wade responded. The two broke into laughs. Like Stephenson's teammates, James and Wade understand the reality of life with Stephenson. As his opponents, their fortunes can also swing based on the version of "Born Ready" that shows up on any given night. Stephenson may never change. But he may never need to.
James and the Heat are choosing to be above Stephenson's antics, and it will probably work. They can close the series out at home on Friday and secure a fourth straight trip to the Finals. They almost did that on Wednesday -- Chris Bosh missed an open corner three in the closing seconds that would have given Miami the lead. Despite the best player in the world being a non-factor, it came down to the wire. It's tough to imagine James getting in that kind of foul trouble two games in a row.
But Stephenson will not let the Heat pull away quietly. He's going to make sure nothing comes easy for the two-time defending champs. James and Wade may be taking a dismissive approach to Stephenson, talking about him like a child just starting to learn about the concept of disobeying his parents. But they're talking about him, and they'll have to keep talking about him until they finish the job. They can choose not to engage with him, but they can't avoid reckoning with him.