INDIANAPOLIS – Lance Stephenson is dying for LeBron James to lose his mind and deliver pro basketball the public service of a punch in his mouth. This is the end game for the young Indiana Pacers guard, his flawed and best idea for beating the champions. It'll never happen, because James is too smart and too hell-bent on history to let a clown act get between him and the NBA Finals.
All around him, the Pacers warn Stephenson to grow up, play the part of a stable pro, and he forever nods in sheepish agreement – only to have his fingers crossed behind his back. Only to shade all of his talents as one of the NBA's most uniquely gifted guards with bush-league theatrics.
Stephenson comes on a fool's errand, a burgeoning young star whose act should've been anchored long ago on his childhood Coney Island. When his prodigious talent ought to be elevating his standing in the sport, Stephenson is costing himself credibility and contract cash. Most of all, he's costing the Pacers the stability needed to chase a championship.
These are the Eastern Conference finals, and Stephenson is blowing into the ear of LeBron James. These are the Eastern Conference finals, and he is pushing James at the end of plays, begging for retaliation. These are the Eastern Conference finals and Stephenson is marching into the Heat huddle to hear Erik Spoelstra's plans.
"I just wanted to hear what he had to say, hear what they were going to do on offense," Stephenson said. "They were trying to run a pick-and-roll and I heard it. …I wanted to get into their heads, get under their skin."
When the Pacers finally lose these Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat – perhaps as soon as Game 6 on Friday – they'll be largely framed by Stephenson's clown act. He reflects on everyone here. After promising he'd stop trying to incite James and the Heat, Stephenson unloaded everything onto them on Wednesday night. To beat Miami, the Pacers need strong-minded professionalism – an edge that works within the margins. Stephenson won't get away with this nonsense on the road, and yet rest assured: He'll try and he'll fail.
"We know Miami has what it takes to beat us, but the question is: Do we have what it takes?" David West told Yahoo Sports. "Do we have what it takes to get past them? We've had this hill, this obstacle and we have to get over it."
Without Stephenson in a serious state of mind, free of the frivolity, Indiana has no chance. In the end, Paul George was the Pacers' hero in Game 5 – his contributions far beyond his 37 points and six steals. His $25,000 fine for grumbling about the foul differential in Game 4 turned out to be the greatest financial investment of his life – $5,000 per foul on LeBron James in Game 5.
James played 24 minutes, scored seven points, and yet what does it tell you that somehow he still had a chance in the final seconds to beat Indiana? It tells you the gulf is still deep between these two teams, that the Heat are far superior in every element – especially psychologically. Stephenson pesters his own team far more than he does James and the Heat.
That's why Stephenson goaded Evan Turner into a practice fight on the eve of the playoffs, and why he's forever entangled in dramas with his teammates. From Roy Hibbert and West and George, there was no sense on Wednesday the Pacers veterans found Stephenson's bizarro world the least bit entertaining. They won the game and it felt like his act was an unnecessary evil to them.
"Lance is Lance," George said.
Somehow, Indiana survived to make one more trip to Miami for Friday night, and now the Pacers will get the full force of LeBron James in Game 6, the full force of paying for Stephenson's clown show. The Pacers will need him of strong body and mind, need him playing it straight, and now they find out whether Lance Stephenson is capable of playing the part of a real point guard in pursuit of the NBA Finals – or just some clown trying to inspire the greatest player in the world to a meltdown that's never, ever coming.