Battle with LeBron excites but doesn’t intimate Lance Stephenson, who was key in 22-point comeback

Lebron James, Lance Stephenson, Born Ready, Cleveland Cavaliers, Pacers

Lance Stephenson says he doesn’t have back-and-forth conversations with LeBron James. In fact, they don’t speak at all. They play, and they sure battle for certain.

You knew a moment was coming Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the Cleveland Cavaliers visited for the second and final time during the regular season, it was just a matter of when.

Lance and LeBron. Don’t take anything away from the game, but this battle was on center stage. They might as well put a spotlight on their matchup at both ends in the fourth quarter.

Stephenson buried a 3-pointer with 8:03 left, which gave the Pacers the lead in a game where they were terribly slow out of the gates and fell behind 34-12 after 1. That was their lowest scoring quarter of the season. They responded well, though.

“I just felt like we needed to just settle down and focus,” Nate McMillan said after the 97-95 Pacers win. “… We came out tentative for whatever reason. It’s always an emotional game when we play Cleveland.”

Victor Oladipo, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-21 shooting, spoke up to the team during the timeout.

“Well, at least you know we’ve been here before,” he told them. The Pacers (22-20) have four wins this season when falling behind by 19 or more points. “Might as well just go out and play – and do what we’ve been doing all year. I think the guys really responded well.”

They outscored the Cavaliers by eight in the second and doubled them up in the third (32-16) to draw to remarkably carry a two-point lead into the final stanza. And that’s when things began to heat up between Lance and LeBron.

Bojan Bogdanovic got the start on James, who scored 21 of his 27 points over the first three quarters. After making his first three shots in the fourth, he missed his final four and made a costly turnover.

“It’s great because the coaches are challenging me,” Stephenson said of this matchup bringing out the best in his game. “It’s tough to guard LeBron so whoever got the guts to go into him and play him hard, I figure this is the game that you can do it.

“Just playing against the best player in the league, trying to win against him. There’s a lot of fans coming out to support him so I just wanted to get they fans mad, too. [laughs] It’s just trying to have fun.”

These two have a long history – from Lance’s immature choking sign while on the bench during the postseason to that famous gif that remains popular today of Lance blowing in LeBron’s ear. Every time he has poked the bear, it leaves Pacers fans scratching their head. That nearly became a reality in this one.

Back to that 3-pointer by Lance. He played his air guitar down the floor and then eliminated any space between him and the world’s greatest player. James didn’t like and had to be separated. Then, before the ball was inbounded with 7:53 left, James hit Stephenson with a light forearm. After a review, James was given his fourth technical foul of the season, and he amped it up another level.

James hit two jumpers and assisted on a corner 3 from Kevin Love. The Pacers used a timeout after the quick 7-0 spurt.

“You got to be smarter than that,” McMillan said. “I thought he had an impact on this game, being physical and making plays on the offensive end of the floor. But down the stretch, in that situation, you got to be smarter than that.”

Ultimately it didn’t cost them. A frustrated LeBron (27 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 steals), who had to carry the team without All-Star guards Dwyane Wade and Isaiah Thomas, played 41 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back — arriving from Toronto.

The Cavaliers have now lost three in a row and seven of their last nine games.

“He’s a great player,” Stephenson said. “You just can’t play regular defense on him, you have to get into him. It’s hard to get into his head but tonight I guess was the night that we did it. … I try to channel it because you know they watching us and LeBron is probably looking for me to do something.”

He knows and we all know. That was the matchup to watch over the final eight minutes and it did not disappoint.

“I’m not going to harm the team, I’m not going to mess up the game. I’m just playing hard, playing defense, trying to get my teammates involved, trying to get rebounds, and also trying to get the fans involved.”

Playing beside Lance takes time, whether it’s him throwing a no-look pass, going one-on-one, or demanding the ball. It doesn’t always work, but it does frequently. Oladipo is the motor behind the team, but he’s the spark plug, delivering the current to ignite the Pacers.

“That’s why he’s Born Ready. That’s why he’s Lance,” said Oladipo. “He was very effective. When he plays like that, it’s huge for us. … It can definitely help us be the team we want to be, and be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.”

This Pacers team is at their best when they are moving the ball, getting stops defensively where they don’t have to take the ball out of the net, and when they have a balanced attack. Point guard Darren Collison paced the team by connecting on his first nine shots and scoring 22 points in the win. He won’t often end up on the highlights, but he doesn’t make many mistakes with the ball.

Playing without Myles Turner for the second game in a row due to a sore right elbow, Domantas Sabonis effectively recorded his second double-double in three games with 12 points and 15 rebounds, plus a monster block late. As a group, this is a playoff team that has connected quickly.

That will only get better as they head out west for a five-game road trip over nine days. But first, they took care of business at home winning three of their last four. They may have won Wednesday to Miami if not for their brutal struggles from distance, going 1 for 18.

The Cavaliers (26-16), meanwhile, finally return home to Cleveland after concluding a stretch with eight of nine games on the road and sleeping in their beds just two nights since the day before Christmas Eve.

After Friday’s win, as Oladipo spoke briefly with stars James and Wade, Stephenson smiled and then joined the Pacers TV broadcast for an interview, multiple times wooing in celebration.

He takes an old-school approach to his opponents. “I’m not trying to be the other team’s friend. I’m trying to be my teammates’ friend and when I’m playing against guys … I want to kick your butt.”

Mark your calendars: These two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in two weeks, on January 26th in Cleveland.

[Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

One Response to Battle with LeBron excites but doesn’t intimate Lance Stephenson, who was key in 22-point comeback
  1. […] not trying to be the other team’s friend,” Stephenson said. “I’m trying to be my teammates’ friend and when I’m playing against guys … I want to […]

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