Lance Stephenson sounds convinced that he's found a crack in the king's armor: trash talk.
''To me, I think it's a sign of weakness,'' Stephenson said, according to the Associated Press. ''He never used to say anything to me. I always used to be the one who said, `I'm going to do something to get you mad.' Now he's trying to do it to me. So I feel like it's a weakness. I feel like I'm doing something right because I'm getting under his skin, but I've definitely got to keep stepping up to the plate and be more aggressive when he does that.''
The comments come one day after Miami defeated Indiana 99-87 in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Throughout Saturday night's action, Stephenson and James could be seen exchanging words.
The precipitating incident appeared to come with 11:03 remaining in the second quarter and the Pacers leading 23-14. James backed down Stephenson in the paint, but Stephenson gave way and fell to the floor, drawing a charge on James even though there didn't seem to be major contact between the two players. The two players began jawing before play continued to the other end of the court.
“I’m not much of a talker," James said, according to NBA.com. “I don’t ever start it but I can get involved in it and still keep my head. Winning the game is more important. I understand what the main goal is.”
Always known as an emotional player and a bit of an instigator, Stephenson has a bit of a history with James, both recent and from years past.
During Game 2, Stephenson fell hard to the court after taking a light shove from James outside the three-point line. That action cost Stephenson $5,000, as he was hit with a flopping fine from the league office. Stephenson is the only player to have been fined for flopping during the 2014 playoffs, and he was previously fined during the 2013 playoffs and the 2013-14 regular season.
A 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Heat and Pacers also produced some fireworks between James and Stephenson. After James missed a free throw, Stephenson was caught on camera doing the "choke" signal by holding his neck with both hands. Later in the series, Juwan Howard would confront Stephenson before a game to discuss the incident and Dexter Pittman would level Stephenson with a flagrant foul.
"I mean, this is basketball," Stephenson said, according to the Sun-Sentinel. "I don't really have no beef with [James]. It's just basketball. When you're on the court, it's no friends. Just basketball. I don't want to get into the off-the-court stuff. It's just on-the-court, basketball toughness and never bowing down."
Before the Eastern Conference finals opened, Stephenson also sent a shot at Dwyane Wade, saying that he planned to run around a lot so that Wade's knee would "flare up." Those two received double technicals during a regular season game back in March, and Stephenson was later ejected for taunting Wade.
Rather than a "sign of weakness," isn't it possible that James' trash talk is something resembling a sign of respect? The 23-year-old Stephenson has been a key X-factor for the Pacers throughout the season, and he led Indiana with 25 points (on 10-for-17 shooting) and seven assists in Game 2.
Given Stephenson's success and his integral role for the Pacers, perhaps James was looking to push some buttons or rile up Stephenson in an effort to distract him. Stephenson's history of volatility, after all, makes him an obvious target. He did recently get into a practice "scuffle" with teammate Evan Turner.
Stephenson wound up finishing with 10 points (on 3-for-9 shooting) and 11 rebounds in Game 3, as the Pacers blew a 15-point first-half lead en route to a double-digit defeat.
James posted a game-high 26 points (on 9-for-14 shooting), seven assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Game 4 between the Heat and Pacers is set for Monday in Miami. Video via YouTube user NBAVideos2014