INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacer enigma that is Lance Stephenson looms large and edgy.
Can you handle it?
Can the Miami Heat?
Stephenson is fearless and flighty, good and bad, productive and invisible, chaos and control. He is all raw talent and emotion, except when he thrives with skill and poise.
“His edge always helps us,” coach Frank Vogel says.
Well, most of the time, anyway.
At one point during Sunday's Eastern Conference Finals opening win over Miami, Stephenson backed superstar LeBron James into the paint and scored over him.
How many guards can do that?
How many would even try?
Of course, Stephenson is not like most guards. He is 6-5 and 230 pounds, close enough to James' 6-8, 230-pound presence to have a physical chance, competitive enough to not even think about backing down.
He plays on the edge, and sometimes beyond. All-Star-caliber play clashes with outbursts, technicals and what-the-heck-is-he-thinking moments. This is his strength and his weakness, and the Pacers, one game up on the two-time defending champs, embrace the first, accept the second.
“He's been able to control (his emotions),” teammate Paul George says. “He's learned to be a professional. He's an emotional person. That's what we need. We need a guy with that energy, that toughness.
“He gets out of hand sometimes, but we can live with most of it.”
Here's a snap shot of what that means. In Miami's last regular season appearance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stephenson drew two technical fouls and was ejected. It almost cost Indiana a victory and its No. 1 Eastern Conference seed.
Before Sunday's game Stephenson talked about his matchup with Dwyane Wade, the Heat's other superstar, who is battling knee injuries. Stephenson said he would run Wade until his knees swelled. Then he went out and totaled 17 points (on 8-for-12 shooting) and a playoff-career-high eight assists against just two turnovers.
“He did a great job of staying poised and keeping himself within the game,” George says.
Wade didn't flinch, scoring a game-high 27 points on 12-for-18 shooting. He welcomed the idea that Stephenson seeks the challenge of guarding him.
“I would hope so. That would mean I did something right in my career.
“Lance is a competitor. I'm a competitor. I'm sure we both enjoy it.”
Stephenson's latest enjoyment comes from a couple of weeks of relative calm. There have been no outbursts or disruptions. Will it last? Can it last? This much is certain -- he is trying.
“I have to calm down my little antics. I've decided I'm not going to do any of that at all. I'll stay poised, and play with my team.”
He was so low key on Sunday that fans wondered aloud if something was wrong.
“When I do certain things or get the crowd involved I play better,” he says, “but if it helps my teammates and helps me stay in the game, I'm definitely not going to do that.”
Stephenson remains a Larry Bird project. The Pacers' president and Hall of Famer has always seen Stephenson's promise despite the rough moments, and worked to channel it.
“Larry is a big part of my future,” Stephenson says. “He's helped me so much this year, and since I've been here. Having him here to show me how to be a pro is great. He's one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Having that voice gives me a lot of confidence.”
Stephenson's confidence was in full force Sunday when he helped direct an offense that shredded Miami's normally rock-solid defense. The Pacers' 107 points were the most the Heat has allowed in the postseason. Stephenson rocked them early by hitting six of his first seven shots as Indiana established instant control it never lost.
“He played really intelligent,” Vogel says. “He just attacked, read the defense really well, and found the open man. He was a big part of our offensive attack.”
Miami figures to come out far harder, especially on defense, in tonight's Game 2, with James leading the way. Given his 25 points and 10 rebounds weren't enough on Sunday, anything is possible.
“LeBron is the best player in the league,” Stephenson says. “He'll come out aggressive and respond. We have to respond back. It will be tough. We're playing the champions. We have to be aggressive and play the way we did the last game, and a little better.”
In other words, play large and edgy.
Just like Stephenson.