For one game at least, Lance Stephenson got the best of LeBron James. He didn’t get under his skin, but he did enough to make LeBron James uncomfortable in the few minutes he was on the floor, and play a big part for the Indiana Pacers as they beat the Miami Heat to stay alive in the Eastern conference finals.
There were other factors to consider, mainly the referees pinning five fouls on LeBron James which kept him off the floor for half the game, and made him look completely out of rhythm, scoring a career-low for a postseason game with just seven points.
Stephenson didn’t talk before the game this time. Paul George did it for him in the press conference after game 4. It was enough to sway the officials in the Pacers’ direction. Every big decision, especially early and late in the game, went in the Pacers’ direction, often also being the wrong decision. The fact that Stephenson didn’t get a technical foul for his behavior, which included shoving Heat players and interfering with a team huddle among the four blatant flops he pulled off, was a perfect example of how badly reffed this game was.
Officials don’t do it on purpose (we hope). I’m pretty sure they head into a game deciding – we’re going to call it this way tonight. They have plenty of rules and regulations to follow and initially, they start off with the best intentions. An interesting, seemingly objective analysis of the calls on LeBron James’ five fouls makes it look like the refs got it all right. But that is if you believe that with 18,165 screaming fans and the pressure of George’s words from the previous game in their minds, they’re capable of remembering every single bylaw and clause in the rulebook and make a decision within a second from the play. I don’t.
It wasn’t a very good game from Stephenson. He scored 12 points on 4-of-11 from the field, missing his 3-point shots and disappearing offensively for most of the game. If it wasn’t for Paul George erupting in the second half with five 3-pointers, the Pacers would have been on their way to their summer vacations by now and the blame game would have begun. Instead, things went their way, and we now have at least one more game in this series.
James got back with five fouls quite early in the fourth quarter, as Spoelstra decided there wasn’t anything to lose. After doing very well without their best player in the second quarter, the Heat lost their way in the second half, and keeping their best player off the floor was no longer an option. James finished the game shooting 2-of-10 from the field, including three air balls in the fourth quarter which Chris Bosh turned twice into baskets. He struggled to get to the line and had Stephenson on him like a leech the whole time. I’m not sure Stephenson was the one who bothered him – it was more about how the game went for him, but the way it played out, the enigmatic Pacers shooting guard won the fray on that day at least.
Things will be different in Miami, and maybe it’s worth getting a fine if one of the Heat players or staff speaks about how they got screwed by the officials in the previous game. If game 5 has taught us something, it’s that making ridiculous claims about how the officials did or did not influenced the outcome of the game seems to work in your favor, so why not give up $25,000 to improve your chances of making the NBA finals?