The Pacers have a decision to make. They’ve just lost Game 6 to the Miami Heat, their annual roadblock team in the playoffs. Three years in a row they’ve been stopped by LeBron James and co. But this post-season, a new storyline has dominated the series; the strange (and at times infantile) feud between LeBron James and Lance Stephenson. Firstly, let us be clear; the war of words was instigated entirely by Stephenson, was dragged onto the court by him, and ultimately exploded in his face.
It was embarrassing at times for the Indiana shooting guard. His reputation as a dazzling (if erratic) player who sparkled for the Pacers, raising his game to near All-Star levels this year has been tainted by his behaviour this series. Even if his attempts to play mind games with James had worked (an incredibly unlikely prospect to begin with) it still would have reflected badly on him, such was the way he carried it out. Stephenson tried to disrupt LeBron with petty, pest tactics; blowing in his face, pawing at his face during stoppages, trying to flop ridiculously whenever he could. This wasn’t Larry Bird-like trash talk, backed up with big time performances. This was the behaviour of a guy with too much bark and not enough bite. Speaking of Larry Bird, the Pacers president apparently warned Stephenson to wind back the extracurriculars and focus on playing with true grit. I mean, come on, it was Game 6, with the Pacers facing elimination. Stephenson took this warning from one of the legends of the sport as permission to carry on acting (Shaqtin?) the fool in this game, producing some of his silliest tomfoolery yet.
Hopefully, Stephenson didn’t take credit for LeBron’s bad game in Game 5. Foul trouble, a lot of them very questionable calls, had hamstrung James in that game, not the chippy from Stephenson. It was one of the worst nights of LeBron’s career, so he was looking to bounce back in a big way this game. He did exactly that, finishing with 11 points in the first quarter, and putting his head down to drive to the basket every time he got the ball. He was setting up shooters, making blocks and charging around like the world’s best player. Stephenson was playing well as well, when he wasn’t niggling at LeBron. But eventually Stephenson lost control, and as ESPN analyst Bill Simmons pointed out, when Stephenson committed a flagrant foul on Norris Cole, the whole Pacers team seemed to deflate because of it, as if Lance’s outrageous behaviour was sapping the spirit of the team.
The flagrant foul was vicious. In real time, it looked fairly innocuous, Cole and Stephenson both going for a loose ball, with Cole getting there just ahead of Stephenson. The Pacers man seemed to try and make a play on the ball, but missed and struck Cole in the face. But replays showed that Cole had gotten to the ball well before Stephenson and that Stephenson had raised his hand away from where the ball was, to face level, and deliberately hit Cole, maybe out of frustration. The Heat had been pulling away at that point, and this petulant act compounded the Pacers lack of momentum. Particularly disappointing, however, was Vogel applauding Stephenson’s play after the foul, which had been committed right in front of the Pacer’s head coach. He should have been berated Stephenson for the foul, which awarded the Heat two free throws and possession. He definitely shouldn’t have commended Stephenson for the act.
The Pacers quickly slipped away from the game, and it was all but over two-thirds of the way through the 3rd quarter.
Stephenson is a free agent at the end of this season. The Pacers face a big decision on whether they want to resign him, at considerable cost, or not. He is a young man, and is already an electrifying player in this league. In the post-game press conference, Frank Vogel said of Stephenson “I’ll take his competitive spirit, but I don’t think it’s ever good to tug on Superman’s cape.” When asked about whether he wanted Stephenson resigned, Paul George said “I mean…I don’t know…”. Now if the head coach and president of the team that drafted Lance Stephenson can’t control him, can’t stop him from unravelling mentally on the court, then what hope does a new team, who’ll have to fork over a huge amount of money for him, have?
The upside of keeping Stephenson is huge, if he learns to play with professionalism, cuts the flopping and trash-talk, and focuses on his game. But if he insists on disobeying orders from those in charge, and on hurting the team with his behaviour, then he’s not worth the money. This was business time for the Pacers, the game that would keep their season alive. It was immensely important. But instead of banding together with his team, a team who have needed to rally numerous times this year, Stephenson favoured persisting with his own ludicrous melodrama, and he brought the team down with him.
Hopefully, he does resign with the Pacers and he does mature a little bit this off-season. If he needs an example to follow when it comes to professionalism, rigid competitiveness and team mentality, he could do a lot worse than follow the lead LeBron James sets. The Miami Heat superstar forced his team into their fourth straight Finals appearance tonight. He won the battle with Stephenson, and he didn’t need to say a word. His play did all the talking, and Lance Stephenson exited the playoffs with a whimper.