INDIANAPOLIS – At times in this series, Lance Stephenson donned a red jersey during Indiana Pacers’ practices to help his team prepare for the threats posed by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Whichever one figured to be the primary attacker, that was the one Stephenson – an athletic, 21-year-old deep reserve on the Indiana bench – simulated as an aid to his team’s defense.
Simulate. Not motivate. That’s the concern now for the Pacers, heading into Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Miami on Sunday wondering how James will respond to a mistake by Stephenson that was more red-faced than red jersey.
Late in the third quarter of Game 3, James shot a free throw after a technical foul on Pacers forward Danny Granger. He missed it, on the heels of two critical misses from the line late in Game 2, to hoots from the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That’s when Stephenson erred – he put his hands to his throat in the sports’ universal “choke” sign. And the TV cameras caught it.
That meant it was preserved for posterity and replayed countless times nationally on ESPN SportsCenter and elsewhere. It was a silly bit of exuberance by a young player making most of his contributions as eyes, ears and clapping hands from the Pacers bench – his stint of barely a minute at garbage time Thursday was his only appearance in the series so far and he has played six minutes in two rounds.
But it also was the sort of needless needling Indiana doesn’t want, lest it rankle and inspire James or his teammates. Granted, he and the Heat shouldn’t need a goosing from a Pacers scrub to be driven to even and win the series. But if Lance Whoever gives Miami some video bulletin-board material that does make a difference somehow, he will have stirred up a problem for his side.
“Lance … Stephenson? You guys want me to quote about Lance Stephenson?” James said after Miami’s practice. “I’m not going to give him the time. Knock it off.”
James claimed he was unaware of the Indiana player’s gesture, hadn’t seen it in replay or been told about it in nearly 48 hours since and was not going to “stoop down” to deal with it.
We’ll see. Just to be safe, Stephenson made amends to his teammates and coach Frank Vogel Friday, and went into full mea culpa mode after practice on Saturday.
“I was wrong and disrespectful to my teammates, the Miami Heat and their organization,” he told NBA.com. “I’m sorry that I did that. It was very disrespectful.
“I just try to help my teammates out. Encourage ‘em. Try to talk to other players, but in a good way. Get them off their game a little bit but not being disrespectful. I just got out of hand one time, and I’ll never do it again.”
Said Vogel: “He came to me and apologized [Friday morning]. He knows it was wrong. I reiterated to him that it was wrong. Unacceptable. But I fully support the energy he brings from the bench. That’s what I want from my bench, bringing enthusiasm. He’s come a long way in maturity the last two years. So it’s a minor misstep. Not something we condone.”
Stephenson, the 40th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, has been a project in every sense for Indiana, with raw talent, on-court inexperience and off-court issues (an August 2010 assault on a girlfriend that was later dismissed). He wasn’t popular with his teammates as a rookie, bringing more arrogance than a second-rounder who played one season at Cincinnati should.
But his behavior, demeanor and play improved this season. He averaged 2.5 points and 10.5 minutes in 42 appearances, shooting 37.6 percent from the field. Still not good, but his contract is affordable and Pacers president Larry Bird still loves Stephenson’s potential.
As long as he’s more of a positive than a negative.
“He’s grown tremendously in maturity,” Pacers guard Dahntay Jones said. “He’s still a kid, but he’s becoming a man at a fast rate and he’s been doing a great job of accepting responsibility.”
Jones said Stephenson owned up his “overzealous” lapse in judgment to the other players. “We all make mistakes – I think he understands the severity of it, that it’s on the national stage and it’s not necessary,” Jones said. “So he’s owned up to it and accepted the responsibility, that it’s not a smart thing to do for the respect of the game. It’s just a mistake on his books right now and we’ll go from there.”
James sounded like he already was gone from the perceived slight. Ending his huddle with reporters, he said one more time: “Lance Stephenson?”