The answer, my friend, is blowing in the ear. Or so Lance Stephenson thought when, in his latest attempt to disrupt basketball’s reigning king, he stood beside LeBron James during a dead-ball moment and blew a sweet something toward him. Asked later if he’d ever done that to anyone as a defensive tactic, James said, “Probably my wife. I blew in my wife’s ear before. That was definitely a defensive tactic.’’
It’s doubtful if Stephenson’s hijinks — he also tried to wander into the Miami huddle — had a direct impact on the Heat’s inability to close out the Eastern Conference finals. But for the first time in four games, the Indiana Pacers actually could enjoy another bizarre Lance moment instead of turning Stephenson into a team pariah. Seizing what could be termed an officiating miracle — James was in foul trouble the entire night, played only 24 minutes and was limited to a postseason-career-low seven points — the Pacers rode an unconscious fourth quarter from their own superstar, Paul George, to win Game 5 and push the drama back to south Florida.
No one, probably including the Pacers themselves, thinks they can storm back, win two games and steal the series. What James will do, undoubtedly, is use his stumble to fuel a massive response in front of a ready-to-burst home crowd Friday night. “I’m just here to play basketball, man. All the extracurricular activities, I don’t really get into,” James said after the 93-90 loss. “I’m just trying to win. We need one more win to get to the Finals. That’s my only concern. All the extra stuff, whatever Lance wants to do, I don’t really care about that.”
But at least the Pacers didn’t succumb when giving up would have been convenient. Without James, the Heat rallied behind a wave of three-pointers — making 15 of 31 tries, five from the forgotten Rashard Lewis. Miami was in position to tie or win in the final seconds when James, rather than drive hard to the basket, dished in the right corner to an open Chris Bosh, whose trey attempt could have won the game but missed. James will hear criticism that dogged him earlier in his career — why is he passing up the final shot when, um, Michael Jordan wouldn’t have — but the truth is, James made the right play in finding a high-priced teammate with an easier shot, which is what Jordan once did in an NBA Finals game when Steve Kerr was open. The difference was, Kerr made his shot and Bosh did not.
No regrets, James said. “I was able to get into the paint, drew two (defenders),’’ he said. “I saw CB in the corner in the sweet spot. I thought we got a pretty good look. We live with the result.’’
Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, agreeing with the decision: “He went for the kill. We’ll take that look.’’
If you’re going to blame James for anything, it’s for being a bull in a china shop when he should have known the officials were looking for any reason — sue me, Adam Silver — to extend the series for another night of potentially big TV ratings. Some of the fouls were questionable, but shame on LeBron for removing himself from an elimination game. “It’s definitely something I’m not accustomed to,’’ said James, stopping short of criticizing the officials when all of this likely will be forgotten in 48 hours. “My teammates kept it going and put us in position to win, and that’s all I can ask for.’’ That left George to remind America when he is in the Gatorade commercials, producing an all-time postseason fourth quarter — 21 points, including every big shot his team needed — in a 37-point performance. It also gave him an opportunity to provide the quip of the playoffs when someone asked him about Stephenson’s ear-blow.
“I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for ‘Bron,’’ George said.
In all likelihood, this was Indiana’s last stand before its anticipated expiration in Game 6. If so, this performance was too little and too late from a team expected to legitimately challenge for an NBA championship. Rarely have we seen a team of so much promise launch to a 46-13 start, then unravel amid dissension, immaturity and bad chemistry. After a miserable Game 4 loss, the Pacers imploded by pointing fingers — Roy Hibbert at coach Frank Vogel for not calling more plays for him on a zero-point night, George at the officials for “home cooking’’ and giving the Heat too many free throws, never mind that the Pacers made only 11 of their 17. Several Pacers focused on Stephenson, who foolishly said Sunday that he’d successfully invaded James’ head and noticed “a sign of weakness.’’ Before Game 5, he acknowledged he had made a mistake, and related that his parents had suggested he be quiet and play basketball.
Next thing you knew, Lance was blowing in LeBron’s ear. The Pacers simply don’t learn from their errors. Even George had the audacity to suggest before Game 5 that the Pacers are the best team in the league, saying, “We feel like when we’re playing at a high level — regardless of how our opponent is playing — and we’re playing at the level we’re capable of, we can outplay a team at their best because we can do it at both ends of the floor at a higher rate. It’s really about what we do.’’
At least he backed up the bluster with bite, doing much of his damage against a helpless Dwyane Wade. “I just felt it. I felt in rhythm,’’ George said. “I had to be aggressive. I got hot.’’
Said Vogel, who may have saved his job by avoiding a 4-1 series romp: “My message to the whole team was the light needs to be on green for all of us. You need to go, you need to attack, you need to be aggressive. Paul took it and ran with it and took it to a crazy level.’’
So it’s on to Game 6, where the Heat are pressured to clinch to avoid an insane Game 7 scene in Indianapolis, while gaining almost a week of rest before the NBA Finals. “We’re expecting LeBron to be LeBron,’’ George said, “and that’s how we want it.’’
“It’s a clean slate for myself,’’ James said. “It sucks for me because I wasn’t able to make plays to help our team win. I made a couple in the fourth, but 24 minutes is not enough for me to make an imprint on the game like I know I’m accustomed to doing or I know I can do.”
Still, a wild card lurks. What might Stephenson have in mind next as the designated LeBron stalker? “I’m built for that,” Stephenson said of the assignment. “You can impact a game in different ways. You don’t have to score. You can find your teammates or get loose balls. You can get rebounds.”
Or you can blow a kiss. Whatever works in the 21st century.