Are the Indiana Pacers Under LeBron James' Skin?
Once upon a time (i.e. 1998), they nearly impeded Michael Jordan's quest for a second three-peat by pushing his Chicago Bulls to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Two years later, they hacked Shaquille O'Neal and undercut Kobe Bryant while making the Los Angeles Lakers sweat at the outset of their own championship streak.
With George Hill playing the part of Mark Jackson. With Paul George standing in for Jalen Rose. With Roy Hibbert and David West imitating Rik Smits and Dale Davis—and then some.
And with Lance Stephenson serving as a Reggie Miller-like instigator, albeit with quite a bit more muscle and only the occasional miracle three.
The parallels were tough to ignore in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, from which the Pacers walked away with a 99-92 win Tuesday night. Indy owned the physical edge from start to finish, as it has throughout this series. The Pacers piled up a 50-32 edge in points in the paint and a 49-30 advantage on the boards while recouping 15 of their own misses. They disrupted the timing of Miami's clockwork offense by bumping the Heat off their spots and doing everything within reason (and beyond) to impede the movement on which Erik Spoelstra's floor-spreading offense typically thrives.
They did so chiefly by hounding the one player on whom the Heat's entire operation leans: LeBron.
The Pacers learned their lesson from Game 3, when James eviscerated their single coverage on the interior. This time around, the Pacers bumped and bruised him with multiple defenders just about every time he touched the ball down low. They made James work just to get the ball, and work even harder to create solid scoring opportunities therein.
The result? LeBron fared far worse on the block in Game 4 than he did during Game 3 (h/t ESPN Stats & Info):
LeBron James scored 3 points on 1-6 shooting on post-up plays in Game 4 after scoring 14 points on 5-9 shooting on post-ups in Game 3.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2013
Indy also did well to confuse James by throwing a variety of tormentors at him throughout the evening. There was the usual smorgasbord of Paul George's length and David West's strength, the latter of which led to a block of LeBron's putback attempt early on.
But therein also came more than a sprinkling of Lance Stephenson, who's morphed into the Pacers' de facto attack dog. Last year, Stephenson spent much of the second-round series between Indy and Miami barking at the Heat, making choking gestures at LeBron and going toe-to-toe with Juwan Howard.
All from his seat on the bench.
This time around, Frank Vogel has unleashed Stephenson on the court and allowed the feisty Brooklynite to sic himself on the four-time MVP—at his own request, no less (via Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports):
Frank Vogel said Lance Stephenson "asked to guard'' LeBron James. Here's what else he did: http://t.co/e4MNimwwxQ— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) May 29, 2013
On the other end, Stephenson's aggressive approach added to a Pacers offense that, though stagnant at times, forced James and his 'mates to work for their stops. Stephenson's series-best 20 points (on an efficient 9-of-15 shooting) made him one of five Pacers starters to score in double figures.
On the whole, Indy wound up hitting exactly half of its shots from the floor (35-of-70) and bullying its way to the free-throw line 33 times, with 26 of those trips ending successfully.
The Pacers' team-wide effort paid serious dividends in the end, especially in their attempt to contain James. After skating through Miami's 114-96 annihilation of the Pacers in Game 3 with nary an infraction (physical or verbal), LeBron picked up a technical foul out of frustration late in the first quarter Tuesday night and fouled out with just under a minute to play after getting called for an illegal screen against Stephenson on the offensive end.
That fit sealed just the second disqualification by personal foul in 128 playoff games for James, who finished the night with 24 points on 8-of-18 shooting with six rebounds, five assists, three blocks, a steal and two turnovers in 43 minutes.
Which team has the advantage heading into Game 5?
That also left the Heat down one super-duper-star with a four-point deficit to make up—and Miami went scoreless from there. Dwyane Wade was called for traveling while trying to set up a three-pointer for Shane Battier before three more of Miami's long-range attempts went for naught.
For once, LeBron was helpless to shift the outcome in his team's favor.
But the Pacers shouldn't expect that to be the case with James going forward. Like MJ, Shaq and the Mamba before him, LeBron will have every opportunity to vanquish the demons of his that dwell in what's now known as Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Unlike his two legendary predecessors, James is already well practiced in that particular art. Last year, the Heat fell into a 2-1 hole against the Pacers after LeBron scored 22 points on just 10-of-22 from the field and turned the ball over four times in a Game 3 loss. He returned to the floor three days later with arguably the finest playoff performance of his career to that point: 40 points on 14-of-27 shooting (12-of-16 from the line) with 18 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks in just under 44 minutes.
The Heat went on to finish off the Pacers in six. You could say, then, that LeBron, like some of the NBA's greatest players, has a history of flustering and frustrating the Pacers.
A history with chapters still to be written.
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