Like potato salad in direct sunlight, Lance Stephenson mutates when he’s exposed to LeBron James. Under normal circumstances, the 27-year-old shooting guard is frustratingly erratic. But when he plays against LeBron, as he’s done in a remarkable 41 of his 440 career NBA games, the Indiana Pacers swingman becomes enthrallingly erratic.
On Sunday, Stephenson’s Pacers shocked LeBron’s Cavaliers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff matchup, and Lance was very much involved. He hadn’t dunked in the playoffs since 2014, but he wasted no time producing a highlight reel slam against Cleveland, which he celebrated by ramming his head into the stanchion.
He also played some overenthusiastic defense on LeBron that earned him a technical foul.
This is Stephenson’s fifth playoff series against James, and while he has lost all four of their previous encounters, he’s never failed to make things interesting. By now, all James can do is laugh.
It all started in 2012, when the Miami Heat played the Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Stephenson played fewer than 10 minutes in that entire series, but he was more than capable of trolling James from the sidelines. In Game 3, he gleefully pantomimed choking from the bench area after LeBron missed a technical foul in the third quarter.
According to Pacers forward Danny Granger, Heat players tried to confront Stephenson in the locker room after the game. The following day, James bristled when reporters asked about the choking gesture. “Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson?” he said. “I’m not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.” LeBron’s Stephenson avoidance strategy worked: The Heat beat the Pacers in six games, and James went on to win his first ever NBA championship.
But LeBron and Lance could only avoid each other for so long. The Pacers and Heat met in the playoffs the next two years, and those series became instant classics. Much of that is thanks to Stephenson, who dedicated himself to chafing LeBron like a pair of wool compression shorts.
In 2013, the Pacers pushed Miami to seven games, and Stephenson’s defense and goading of James were pivotal. In Game 4, James fouled out of a playoff game for just the second time ever, after Stephenson flung himself to the ground when he encountered a LeBron screen. ”I didn’t believe it was an offensive foul,” James said after the game. “Lance actually ran into me.”
The teams’ next playoff series included a huge milestone: LeBron actually began talking trash back to Lance. “To me, it’s a sign of weakness because he never used to say nothing to me,” Stephenson told reporters. “I always used to be the one who would say, ‘Ah, I’m gonna get under you, I’m gonna do something to try and make you mad.’ Now he’s trying to do it me. So I think it’s a weakness. I feel like I’m doing something right. And I’m getting under his skin.”
That series included the greatest moment of Stephenson’s up-and-down career. With the Pacers facing elimination going into Game 5, Stephenson flopped, fouled, and frustrated LeBron to a crucial Indiana victory. James scored just 7 points, and his worst-ever playoff performance will forever be remembered for the moment when Stephenson gently blew into his rival’s ear.
It was at this moment when Stephenson went from metaphorically getting inside James’ head to literally penetrating his ear canal. Afterwards, when asked if anyone had ever done that to him before, LeBron responded, “Probably my wife.”
Of course, the Heat prevailed again, and Stephenson left Indiana for Charlotte as a free agent. Stints with the Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Timberwolves followed, but they were of little consequence. In the Western Conference, away from LeBron, Stephenson had faded into obscurity.
Luckily for all of us, Stephenson returned to the Pacers in 2017, announcing his return by swatting LeBron in the nethers during a November regular-season game.
In January of this year, LeBron shoved Stephenson after a brief tussle and earned himself a technical foul. “Lance is just a little dirty, that’s all,” he said after the game. “I mean, we got history, so I should’ve known, though. I’ve know since school that it’s not the guy who tells the joke who gets caught. It’s the guy who laughs. So they caught me on the retaliation. He played well.”
With the Cavs falling behind the Pacers in these playoffs, the hitherto untriumhpant David has yet another chance to slay Goliath. (I’m of course referring to the previously unreleased biblical story where David gets five mulligans.) Flopping and blowing in the giant’s ear haven’t worked in the past, but Lance surely has something up his sleeve. Perhaps a slingshot. Or maybe a blowdryer. What I’m saying is, watch your ears, LeBron.