James seemed both annoyed and amused by Stephenson, as he mentioned after Game 5.
“Lance is one of those guys who like to talk, some, and I'm for it, too,” James said. “I really don't start it up, but if it gets started, I love to do it. It's cool. I think it's great. It shows competitive spirit between two individuals and between two teams, to go out and figure out ways to help their team win.”
At this point, however, maybe Stephenson should go full speed ahead. The Pacers are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, which resumes at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
They need Stephenson to back up his bold talk with bold play. He was essentially invisible in the loss on Thursday, except when James was scoring on him or drawing fouls. Stephenson said his two quick early fouls threw him off in the first quarter and “I never really got my rhythm back.”
There's nothing new left in this series in terms of strategy. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra mentioned that it comes down to the Pacers' size vs. the Heat's speed and quickness.
So the Pacers have to feed the ball to Roy Hibbert and David West. They have to continue to get strong offense from Paul George, who rebounded from a couple so-so games to post 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
They have to get more out of point guard George Hill, who has had some strong games but said he was “too passive” on Thursday. (How you turn passive in Game 5 of a conference final will need to be answered by a more capable psychologist than me.)
And they need Stephenson to produce. Talk is cheap and time is running out.
One plus for the Pacers is the suspension of Miami Heat forward Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who went bird-zerk against Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5, first elbowing him to the floor and then chest-bumping and shoving him. NBA commissioner David Stern said Andersen should have been ejected.
Andersen's absence should bolster the Pacers' inside game, which is already an advantage for Indiana when the Pacers are playing well.
Hibbert mentioned after the game that he needs to step up his defense on Udonis Haslem, who hit 8-of-9 shots for the second time in the series.
“I have to accept the challenge of guarding the paint and getting out to Haslem,” Hibbert said. “Lance is going to have to accept the challenge to play defense against the top player in the NBA, the MVP. If we have the opportunity again, we have to step up and do it.”
The margin of error for both teams is slim, and if the Pacers don't get production out of Stephenson (four points in Game 5) and Hill (one point), they could end up being eliminated on their home court.
One of the reasons the Pacers prevailed in Game 4 was because Stephenson was able to disrupt James (relatively speaking; James fouled out) rather than motivate him. The Pacers also remained the aggressor late in the game, where they seemed to turn passive to a degree in Game 5.
James called out his teammates before the start of the third quarter on Thursday after inactive teammate Juwan Howard had delivered a halftime spiel. Then James scored 16 of his 30 points in that third quarter, following talk with action.
Haslem said the Heat are intent on finishing out the series now.
“We can't go out and play like we're leading in this series,” Haslem said. “We have to play like we're losing the series.”
The series has gone back and forth so far, with neither team capable of winning consecutive games. The Heat will try to break that trend Saturday.
It's guaranteed James and Stephenson will be in the middle of things, but only one will have the last word. If Stephenson is still chirping, it'll be time for Game 7.
If James has the final say, it'll come in a quiet, emptying arena.
Miami at PacersTipoff: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Game 6, NBA Eastern Conference finals
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