INDIANAPOLIS -- From players to the coach, mid-level staffers to management, the message to Lance Stephenson the last two days was simple: Shut up and play. No more public shots at LeBron James, no more lighting a blowtorch under the best player in the world. Just basketball, they told Stephenson, who vowed his sideshow days were behind him.
"We just gotta play," Stephenson said on Monday. "Stop worrying about all the other stuff."
This is Stephenson though; no player this side of Tony Allen is as wildly unpredictable. So there he was on Wednesday, ratcheting up the antics instead of toning them down, declaring a mental war on James when he promised everyone peace. When James passed, Stephenson gave him a shove. When he shot, Stephenson stuck his legs underneath him. During a dead ball Stephenson -- in what became a Vine that nearly broke Twitter -- blew in LeBron's ear, a soft breeze that pushed an incredulous look onto James's face. For the first time this series Stephenson crawled up into the four-time MVP's head and stayed there, forcing James into uncharacteristic early foul trouble in Indiana's 93-90 series saving win.
"It's Lance being Lance," Paul George said. "I hope his breath wasn't too bad for LeBron."
"I don't really ..." said James, his voice trailing off. "I'm just here to play basketball, man."
For better or worse, this is Stephenson - -unabashed, unafraid, brimming with confidence. It's who he was in high school, when the kid from Coney Island grabbed the reins of Lincoln High School from Sebastian Telfair and developed into one of the best prep players in New York history. It's who he was at Cincinnati, where he was the Big East Rookie of the Year. The process of becoming a pro was more painful, but in the last two years Stephenson has developed into an elite defender and rapidly improving scorer. He is coach Frank Vogel's workhorse, one trusted with ballhandling responsibilities down the stretch and who routinely draws a top defensive assignment.
"We know who he is, we trust him, we trust his instincts," said David West. "When he's in the fight with us, when he's effective, we're that much better."
James and Dwyane Wade brushed off Stephenson's behavior on Wednesday, but make no mistake: Stephenson got to them. Both barked at the officials about Stephenson, irate at what James deemed "extracurricular activities." After exploding for 32 points in Game 4, James chipped in just seven in 24 minutes in Game 5, a playoff career low, in a frustrating struggle he won't soon forget.
"My plan was to get into their heads, get under their skin and play physical basketball," Stephenson said. "[To] help my teammates win a game."
The Pacers will take the win, will gladly hop a plane to Miami for Game 6, but this one wasn't pretty. Despite James playing limited minutes, the Heat were never out of it. Rashard Lewis rediscovered his stroke and knocked down six three-pointers. Ray Allen, a game time decision with a hip injury, came off the bench to score 15. Indiana got a monster game from George (37 points) and an efficient one from West (19 on 7-11 shooting) but the bench was once again non-existent and only George, West and Luis Scola shot better than 50 percent from the floor. The Pacers head to Miami with a win but are hardly barreling toward Biscayne Bay with momentum.
"We know with our backs against the wall we have proved we can come out," George said. "This is different. We're playing against the champions. This Game 6 is going to be about performing like champions."
So much of that will depend on Stephenson, on how effective he can be. The Pacers know James will seethe for the next 48 hours, will channel all his anger toward them. James said all the right things on Wednesday but the steely resolve in his eyes told a different story. He will attack Stephenson early and often on Friday, will try to duplicate the stellar Game 4 performance rather than the clunker he submitted in Game 5.
"We need one more game to get to the Finals," James said. "All the extra, whatever Lance wants to deal with, I don't really care about that."
One more game, one more win and Indiana heads to Miami hoping to put themselves in the position they fought all season to be in: In a Game 7, at home, on Sunday. A season that appeared on the brink of disaster is still salvageable, the goal of repeating last season's final game showdown on their home floor within reach.
"It's just about rising to the occasion," George said. "We've got a great team. We've got a group, a group that can very well move on to a championship."