MIAMI — Two years ago, in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Lance Stephenson tried to get LeBron James' attention.
Stephenson was a benchwarmer then, and when James was at the free-throw line, Stephenson gave him the choke signal. The young Indiana Pacers guard apologized, but the ultimate indignity came when James was pressed on the subject and offered the most dismissive possible answer.
"You guys are going to ask me about Lance Stephenson?" James said on that May day, after a practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "I'm not even going to give him the time."
James has had no choice but to acknowledge Stephenson over the past two years, as the latter has become a full-time starter and, often, James' defensive assignment. On Saturday, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, they did some jawing at each other.
The Pacers didn't win the game.
But Stephenson still saw that interaction as a victory.
"To me, it's a sign of weakness," Stephenson said. "Because he never used to say nothing to me. I always used to be the one that would say, 'I'm gonna get under you. I'm gonna do something to get you mad.' And now he's trying to do it to me. So I feel like it's a weakness. I feel like I'm doing something right, and I'm getting under his skin. But I definitely got to keep stepping up to the plate, and be more aggressive when he [does] that."
The Miami Heat had already concluded practice, and their media session, by the time Stephenson spoke. When asked about all the talking, however, James said he didn't plan to get into it "with another Stevenson." That was a reference to DeShawn Stevenson, the former Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks guard who constantly tried to talk James out of his game, whether on the court or in the press.
Don't expect James to respond prior to Monday's game, either. He has repeatedly said that he refuses to engage the Pacers in trash talk through the media, even when they prod him.
Frank Vogel, told of Stephenson's comments, said he was fine with whatever it took for the guard to play his best. The Pacers coach needs to carefully toe the line with the 23-year-old, whose energy has been the one constant for Indiana in the playoffs, but who has referred to himself as "Good Lance" and "Bad Lance," sometimes careening out of control on and off the floor.
Stephenson has even adopted one of Vogel's talking points, referring to the Heat in a familial sense.
"The Heat is a team that took us out two years straight," Stephenson said. "It's just like our big brother. We've just got to live up to the challenge, keep fighting, and hopefully we can beat our big brother."
That includes James.
"It's just basketball," Stephenson said. "I don't really have no beef with him. It's just basketball. When you're on the court, there's no friends. It's just basketball."