If you choose to go with only the most sober analysis, then the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals because LeBron James was called for five fouls in the first 2½ quarters and Paul George scored 37 points, including 21 of his team's 29 in the fourth quarter. Yet, for those who prefer to judge a game purely on insanity and off-kilter entertainment, the star of the night was Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.
The four-year pro has been identified as one of the NBA's most active pests already in this postseason, having already been fined for an extremely dramatic flop in Game 2 of this series and proclaiming that he was in the head of LeBron despite little evidence from the star's performance to support that fact. In terms of the full body of work, though, Stephenson's Game 5 was a massive step forward in his career as a troll.
Let's begin with the two most notable moments from Stephenson. With roughly 90 seconds remaining in the third quarter, several Heat players huddled around head coach Erik Spoelstra during a stoppage in play. Naturally, Stephenson decided to join them, adding a look of concern to his face that bordered on silent-movie acting. Watch it in the clip above or take a look at the Loop below:
There's at least some precedent for players entering the huddles of opponents. I'm not sure there's much basis for Stephenson blowing into the ear of LeBron James as if he were a cartoon mosquito:
If you prefer Lance when he's acting a little more like the average NBA player, then perhaps you should check out this flop. With 8:20 left in regulation, Stephenson tried to get LeBron called for his sixth foul with what should earn his second flop-related fine of the postseason:
But it would be wrong to think that Stephenson only does these things to annoy the opposition. In the closing 30 seconds of the game, Stephenson fell to the ground after colliding with Heat sharpshooter Ray Allen. While the Pacers needed him up to play four-on-five, Lance instead chose to stay down for an unreasonable length of time. Teammate Roy Hibbert tried to help him up, but it wasn't going to happen. The result looked like something akin to an adult dancing with a toddler at a wedding:
After the game, Allen didn't seem to be too fond of Stephenson's moves, according to Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report:
Does Stephenson get Heat players out of their game?
"No, it's just buffoonery," Allen said. "As players, we just are professional, we come out and do our jobs. He's young. He'll grow up."
Allen said that there are unwritten rules — and certainly, what Stephenson did to James would seem to violate one of them.
"But, again, it's not going to throw us off from what we're gonna do," Allen said. "We know what our plays are. He makes himself look bad. We've just got to do our job."
Based on LeBron's stats (seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in 24 minutes), it's possible to argue that Stephenson did his, and that his tactics had something to do with the Pacers' win. On the other hand, we've seen Stephenson do things like this before with no attendant dip in James's production — it seems more likely he suffered from foul trouble that kept him from finding any sort of rhythm. There's a better argument that referee Ed Malloy was his chief antagonist on Wednesday night.
What Stephenson's doing is something far beyond garden-variety annoyance. He has been doing this sort of thing for at least two years, before he was even regularly matched up with James on the court. From his increasingly bizarre behavior, it seems more like a form of personal motivation, as if Stephenson can only get himself up for a game if he's staking out the extremes of acceptable behavior.
From that perspective, Stephenson was actually quite successful in inspiring his team. Whether or not any of his actions made sense, Lance looked like the only Pacer fighting for anything before the team went on a game-changing run in the third quarter. Maybe, by some twisted logic, he's more a leader than a troll.
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