CLEVELAND – LeBron James took an elbow to the back from Andre Drummond and then an elbow to the armpit from Marcus Morris before he backpedaled, stumbling, fuming. James held his right hand near his left rib cage and began shouting at officials, angrily arguing for a foul call that never came. And as he ran back on defense, James was caught on camera shouting that he might have to handle the situation on his own terms.
"I'm going to [expletive] that [expletive] up then," James said. "I'm going to [expletive] that [expletive] up!"
Foul language fully expunged, James eventually calmed down and told himself, "I'm not tripping. I'm not tripping."
The Detroit Pistons haven't been able to get James tripping or slipping in their first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they certainly have ignited plenty of emotion in him thus far, turning what should be a ho-hum series for the Eastern Conference favorites into an opportunity for the 31-year-old to taunt the Pistons' bench after hitting a wide-open 3-pointer, wobble joyously after an emphatic dunk and talk smack to Morris after he dared to leave him open from long range.
The youngest of the Pistons' lot of newcomers – 19-year-old rookie swingman Stanley Johnson – brought out James's best bit of edgy gamesmanship on Wednesday in the first quarter of Cleveland's 107-90 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. After Johnson hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Pistons a seven-point lead, James strolled right into him and knocked him off stride. Johnson turned and glared at James but had an even feistier reaction to the exchange in the locker room after the game.
"That was fugazi," Johnson said, using a slang term for fake. "He didn't bump me. I just didn't move out of his direction. I don't know what y'all take from that. I don't take anything from it. But a cheap-ass shot, a cheap-ass bump."
Only a year after he was preparing for the draft out of Arizona, Johnson has shown no fear in matching up physically with James – the self-described "tank" of Cleveland's offense. In Game 1, James got so flustered by Johnson's defense, that he slung him around like a rag doll to break free. Johnson was adamant that he wouldn't back down from the four-time MVP. His comments on Wednesday supported that confidence as he blasted James for being a frontrunner.
"I wish he would just talk when [the game] is 0-0, not when he's up 16. I think that's more – that means something. That means you're confident in yourself. You believe what you're about to do. Don't talk after you made a couple shots. Anybody can do that," Johnson said. "He jabbers. He moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They're always saying something like they're playing basketball, like they're actually in the game. There's only seven or eight players who play, I don't see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion."
James has had his share of ancillary agitators throughout his playoff careers, relatively unknown sorts who look to crawl under his skin or dig into his head to disrupt his focus.
In his early days in Cleveland – before he owned any Most Valuable Player awards – James had DeShawn Stevenson, a journeyman then with the Washington Wizards, who called him "overrated" and enlisted rapper Soulja Boy to dance in the stands on his behalf. In his Miami days – after his status as a champion and the game's best player had been established – James had Lance Stephenson, a nuisance then with the Indiana Pacers who blew softly into in his ear to inspire a headshake, a laugh and countless memes.
James didn't encounter any sideshows in his first season back with the Cavaliers – when either out of deference or respect for his quest to end Northeast Ohio's championship misery – no one dared to challenge him with their words. But in an otherwise bland first-round series against the overmatched Pistons, Johnson has decided to take his turn as James's annoying foil.
"I'm definitely in his head, that's for sure," Johnson said. "That's for sure."
Johnson and James have some history, dating back to two years ago when the brash kid eagerly sought a one-on-one battle – and held his own, according to witnesses – at James' Skills Academy in Las Vegas.
Johnson was asked if he was afraid of how James would respond to his words and was even more defiant.
"Why would I be?" Johnson responded, incredulously. "He laces his shoes up the same way I lace my shoes up. He has to come out there and compete and make his shots. He doesn't come prepared, that's the NBA – anybody and everybody can get busted any night. From the last guy on the bench to the first guy out. He's going to have to strap his shoes in every night tight because I'm going to strap my shoes in every night tight. I'm going to play hard and compete every night as much as I can. Like I said before, he's a great player. I never took that away from him, I never said anything about that. I just said I'm going to compete every night and give my hardest effort every night and live with it. He makes shots like he did and plays like he did, ain't many people in the league, ever, probably ever, that can match that. So it is what it is, he had a great game and move on."
The Pistons will have to win a game or two to avoid coming across as Chihuahuas chirping at the shoelaces of James' signature Nike sneakers. But they won't be silenced just yet. Morris declared before Game 2 that the Pistons would have to be more physical if they stood any chance against the Cavaliers. When informed how James reacted on the court after receiving that elbow from Morris in the fourth quarter, Morris replied, "I know for a fact he wasn't talking to me. … You can quote me on that."
James already stated that he was too old to get caught up in any "shenanigans" when he refused to respond to Stan Van Gundy's comments in Game 1 about James always receiving favorable calls. Though he lost his cool for a brief moment after the consecutive elbows, James said he would never cross the line and risk hurting his team. "I'm the last person that would allow physical play to go to the other side," James said. "I know how much I mean to my team and I understand what this is all about. And I'll make sure our guys understand that we're here to play basketball, everything else is irrelevant. We want to play physical. We want to get up into those guys, make it tough on them. The game is played between the four lines. Video here, video there, it means absolutely nothing. I took a shot, I'm OK. I'm still standing tall. I'll be ready Friday."
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: