Only in The Jungle Book was yanking on the beast’s tail deemed a successful strategy. It’s too bad for the Indiana Pacers that LeBron James is no Shere Khan. He’s not afraid of a little fire.
If you know anything about how this story goes, then you probably could’ve predicted what happened during the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Role player launches verbal grenades at star; star responds with emotionally charged night; role player dissolves into sideshow.
Lance Stephenson, not long after admitting he thought he was getting under LeBron’s skin with his trash-talking—he called it “a sign of weakness because he never used to say nothing to me”—came out and played blind in Game 4. He shouldered foul trouble throughout the first half and then didn’t score his first point until the 4:34 mark of the third quarter. By that point, the game was already slipping away.
Stephenson finished with nine points, five rebounds, and four assists in 32 minutes, and then said afterward he “was trying to get into [LeBron’s] head. I guess he stepped up and got the win. I can take the heat.”
Eh… I don’t know, Lance. In Game 5, Stephenson’s descent continued. He was fined $10,000 for his flopping and became an Internet sensation for blowing in LeBron’s ear. Indiana won despite the antics. But James couldn’t take Stephenson seriously; league executives pondered Lance’s fading free agency stock, and even GM Larry Bird and coach Frank Vogel were bothered by it.
“Blowing in his face probably crosses the line,” Vogel told reporters on Thursday. “That’s not really who we are. We want to be a competitive team but we don’t cross the line.”
LeBron struggled through foul trouble in Game 5, scoring a career playoff-low seven points. However, he missed just four shots in 32 minutes of a blowout Game 6, sending the Pacers home whimpering. In Game 4 he only went for 32 points, ten boards and five dimes (his playoff record 74th time going for at least 25/5/5) while unleashing one explicit-riddled straight leg shimmy after a coast-to-coast dunk, an outburst you rarely see from the King. He’ll never admit Stephenson and Indiana fired him up, but c’mon dude. It’s obvious.
This was predictable. Born Ready should’ve done some research. Remember DeShawn Stevenson? No? Yeah, most people don’t. But think hard and you’ll likely recall how his annual kiddy fights with ’Bron made some Cleveland-Washington playoff matchups all the more funny not because it was a legitimate rivalry, but because LeBron always won. That… and the fact that Stevenson was a career 7.2 points per game scorer.
That particular Stevenson did get some real revenge when his Mavericks beat the Heat in the 2011 Finals, but the Lock Smith really didn’t have much of an impact, no matter how many shirts he made. He will always be Soulja Boy to James’ Jay Z.
In 16 playoff matchups, LeBron won ten of the games while averaging 24.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Stevenson? Shot sub-34 percent and averaged less than nine a night.
During the beef’s heyday in ’07 and ’08, it was even more embarrassing. Cleveland won eight of 10 games, and James dropped at least 27 in all but two of them.
The whole “be an idiot and talk smack about the best player in the world because I’m a loose cannon” façade actually dates back much further than this. Gerald Wilkins somehow picked up the nickname “Jordan Stopper” before Cleveland’s 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinal series against Chicago, telling reporters he’d been effective at guarding MJ. You can probably guess what happened next: MJ took him apart piece by piece during a four-game sweep, dropping the gauntlet with a 43-point Game 1 masterpiece as cameras caught him mouthing, “He can’t guard me! He can’t guard me!”
The way the series ended was almost poetic: Jordan hitting a fallaway at the buzzer…in Cleveland…in Wilkins’ mug.
While Michael was famous for using preconceived slights to fuel his competitive drive (such as the time rookie LaBradford Smith “mocked” him and gave him 37 points before Jordan promised to give him that much in the first half the following night—he got to 36), he wasn’t the only one. Kobe Bryant did it, too, dealing with his own “Kobe Stopper” in Ruben Patterson during the 2002 NBA Playoffs.
Patterson nicknamed himself the Kobe Stopper because as a rookie in 1999 he’d checked Kobe pretty well in practice. Smart move. Portland’s season ended in a Lakers sweep. Kobe averaged a series-high 26 points per game. But hey, at least Patterson can say he made Bryant work, right? He held him to 35 percent shooting. Baby steps, Ruben. Baby steps.
It started a long-time rivalry between the two, one that saw Bryant perennially turning Patterson into his favorite whipping boy. The next year, he hung 40 on Portland during his run of nine straight 40-point games, embarrassing Patterson even with Portland’s entire game plan revolving around him. Two seasons later, Bryant single-handedly won a division title while wearing the Kobe Stopper as a fur coat.
You don’t yank on the beast’s tail, and you certainly don’t do it when the man in question is probably your team’s biggest x-factor. I can respect where Stephenson was coming from. Indiana had no identity. You watched them play and half looked asleep. The other half didn’t want to be there. They needed a smack in the face. They needed to get angry. They needed a new attitude, or maybe just one person willing to stick their chin out. That’s what Lance did. He went at the King. He tried to get going the only way he knew how. But he definitely bit off more than he can chew.
So, for just a moment, let’s overlook how the series ended. Stevenson was spectacular during the series’ first two games. In one stretch of Game 2, he was the best player on the floor, turning into Tom Shepherd and dropping buckets all over the court. Even in his dismal Game 4, Stephenson woke up in the final quarter, driving with real anger on Norris Cole and converting over the top of LeBron, then taking D-Wade off the bounce like it was nothing. In a close game, that run makes all the difference.
But after all the antics, the talk, and the memes, Stephenson unraveled, failing to make an impact in any of the final three games. Afterward, Stephenson admitted he messed up. Then he posted on Instagram, writing he had “much respect for LeBron and the Heat” while gushing about learning experiences.
Unless your name is Chuck Person, a role player never gets away with talking smack to an MVP. It just doesn’t happen. It goes against everything the basketball gods have taught us. Born Ready will feel it when the contract offers arrive this summer. Bird will take Stephenson again, but only at the right price. (Indiana already committed $48.6 million next year to the team’s four other starters.)
What will the rest of the league do? Will they want him? More than anything else this summer, Lance must buck the trend by reminding he’s not the next DeShawn Stevenson, or the next LaBradford Smith, or even the next Gerald Wilkins. He must convince he won’t be the next role player to lose his way after losing his head against a king. All Lance must do is defeat history.