No one ever covered LeBron James’ back this way in Cleveland. Maybe it was the composition of the Cavaliers' roster, the fact they never carried an old-school Juwan Howard to police the locker room and bench. Maybe it was because James didn’t elicit that kind of loyalty, that kind of two-way protection for his teammates.
When it comes to confrontation, James has always shied away. He doesn’t like it on the floor, nor off it. If the Indiana Pacers believed James was responsible for dispatching benchwarmer Dexter Pittman to obliterate Lance Stephenson on a drive to the basket, they probably have the wrong man. It’s hard to believe Pittman made the decision to get suspended on his own, but privately he isn’t sharing that information.
Rest assured, Heat president Pat Riley loved Udonis Haslem’s flagrant foul on Tyler Hansbrough and, yes, Pittman’s assault on Stephenson in Game 5. Haslem is suspended for Game 6 and Pittman will miss Miami's next three games, but the hard fouls were straight out of Riles’ handbook, the way for a marginal young big man to earn his way with the Heat.
Pittman understood the message Howard had been sending with his pursuit of Stephenson, and clearly acted in accordance with the sniff of violence in the air. Stephenson offended James, but it’s doubtful James pushed for this kind of retaliation. In fact, here’s a story on how James sees retaliation: In February 2006, Rasheed Wallace clobbered Zydrunas Ilgauskas in a Detroit-Cleveland rivalry game. Gash. Blood everywhere. Big Z had to leave the floor and go to the locker room to get bandaged before returning to finish the game. When it was over, Wallace made clear the shot was intentional.
Here’s what bothered Ilguaskas, a source in the Cavaliers' locker room remembered: “He looks out on the court in the second half, and there’s LeBron talking with 'Sheed like nothing happened,” the source said. “They were hanging out on the court, joking, and it really bothered Z. But that’s LeBron – or, at least, that was him.”
The Heat played this perfectly: They made Stephenson pay for that choke sign to James in Game 2 and showed the Pacers and everyone else standing between Miami and a championship that they’ll defend their star. And they did it with Pittman, a player the Heat could afford to take a suspension without costing the team. What’s more, Miami has re-dictated terms of this Eastern conference semifinals. The Heat lead 3-2, and they may have the Pacers thinking more about retaliation in Game 6 than playing well enough to win.
Perhaps Pittman decided to deliver that devastating shot to Stephenson, but a source close to Pittman insisted it simply wouldn’t be in Pittman's DNA to execute that plan on his own. Howard had been on the trail of Stephenson throughout the weekend, calling him out near the Pacers' locker room on Saturday and confronting him on the floor before Sunday's game.
I was standing courtside when Howard approached Stephenson before Game 4. Howard was angry, barking at Stephenson, telling him he better learn to shut his mouth. Stephenson had that uneasy smile, trying to play it cool, but he was clearly unnerved about the possibility that Howard had come over to fight him. Stephenson is useless to the Pacers, but the rest of the roster watched and listened to Howard come calling for him. This was no accident. Howard’s a pro, and he seemed determined to impact this series without ever having to play a meaningful minute.
Deep down, Pacers president Larry Bird had to admire Howard. He comes out of a different time in the NBA, a different protocol, and Bird clearly understood the Pacers weren’t simply getting blown out in Game 5, but beat up, too. This is why he told Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star: “We are soft. S-O-F-T,” words to marinate with these Pacers until Thursday night's Game 6 in Indianapolis.
Bird hated that the Pacers stood there and let the shot to Stephenson go unanswered, that shots to Tyler Hansbrough and David West had gone unanswered. Nevertheless, the Pacers introduced the physical play into this series, and the Heat merely have escalated it. The Celtics still don’t forgive Dwyane Wade for the tackle on Rajon Rondo that dislocated his elbow in the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago and ultimately dispatched Boston’s best player out of the playoffs.
Well, Bird sounded the call on Riley and these Heat for Game 6, and suddenly everything has a feel of the 1980s, a different time, a different game. In the middle of it all, James is the uneasy, uncomfortable center of a lingering, violent tone in this series.
Whatever happens, it always comes back to LeBron James. Someone’s going to get hit on Thursday night and, rest assured, James will brace for this truth: If the Pacers are going down in this series, they’ll probably try to take someone with them. Through it all, though, these Miami Heat have James’ back, and that could go a long, long way for them on their championship chase.
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