Lance Stephenson and the Pacers became the villain LeBron needed
Admitting that his tactics against LeBron James backfired, Lance Stephenson turned the Pacers into just the villain the defending champion Heat were missing.
MIAMI -- Give Lance Stephenson this: He's man enough to admit when he makes a mistake.
He sat at his locker after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night and was kind enough to admit that, yes, his goading of LeBron James over the previous 24 hours was intended to "get in his head." And he was honest enough to admit that, yes, it backfired.
"I tried to get into his head, and I guess he stepped up and got the win," Stephenson said after the Heat bullied the Pacers en route to a 102-90 victory that gave Miami a commanding 3-1 series lead. "I can take the heat. I can take the fight."
James was brilliant on Monday night, but that should have come as no surprise by now. This is what James does when the opportunity presents itself to drop the hammer on a team trying to hang on in a playoff series. There is no more hanging on for the Pacers, except when it comes time to figure out who to blame for a disappointing playoff run when it is over -- and that will be soon.
There will be plenty of culprits, from Roy Hibbert, who had his fourth scoreless game of the playoffs; to Paul George, who got nine of his 23 points in garbage time; to Frank Vogel, who has been thoroughly outcoached by Erik Spoelstra in this series. Looking back to a moment in time when the Pacers still had life in his series, another name to add to that list will be Stephenson.
In the second quarter of Game 3, with the Pacers off to a rousing start, Stephenson engaged James in a trash-talking contest. This was not a good idea. With Indiana leading 23-14, James backed Stephenson down in the post and was whistled for an offensive foul. He waited for Stephenson to get up off the deck, and then backpedaled all the way down the court -- purposely staying in his path.
Since that moment, the Heat have outscored the Pacers 187-154. Just saying.
"I have no regrets," Stephenson said.
Soon enough, he will.
The Pacers must now win three straight games, something they've done only twice in seven playoff series during their three-year run of trying to challenge Miami. They did it in 2012 against the Magic and in the second round this season against the Wizards.
Can they do it against the Heat?
"We're gonna find out," David West said. "We're trying to do something that's very, very tough."
Next to impossible, when the key figure on the other side is a two-time champion named LeBron James -- a suddenly emboldened, motivated champion, at that.
"Sometimes, you've got to watch what you say," George said. "You're on the big stage. Everything we say is going to be bulletin board material. It's really going to have a powerful meaning behind it."
After their verbal skirmish in Game 3, Stephenson said the fact that James was engaging him was a "sign of weakness." The Internet -- our modern-day bulletin board -- lit up like a Memorial Day fire pit.
Before Game 4, James said he had "no reaction" to Stephenson's words. "I grinned," he said. "That's it."
After dropping 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on the hapless Pacers -- and two renditions of his new specialty, the dunk-and-stomp -- James said of Stephenson's tactics, "I got a smirk out of it."
"I don't need any motivation," James said. "I'm motivated enough to try to get back to the Finals. That's motivating enough."
He needed a villain, and Stephenson foolishly volunteered. James and the Heat never really found an enemy worthy of their indignation during a sleep-walk through the regular season -- and mostly, through the first two rounds of the playoffs against Charlotte and Brooklyn. They never encountered a team that was even close to what the old Celtics used to bring out of them.
"We played Boston a lot, and they made it more than just basketball," Dwyane Wade said. "They beat us in the mental game as well as the physical game."
The Heat are now beating the Pacers at both -- so much so, that the best the East's top-seeded team could do after Game 4 was lament the 34-17 disparity in free-throw attempts in the Heat's favor. It's a little late to serve up bulletin board material for the officials, but you know what they say about desperate times.
"We learned some new rules tonight," West said.
Above all, they learned Rule No. 1: Don't give LeBron James any more reason to want to beat you than he already has.
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