LeBron vs. Lance: A Rivalry Filled with Flops, Fouls and Folk Heroes

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeApril 27, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 2: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball during the game against Lance Stephenson #6 of the Indiana Pacers on April 2, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Lance Stephenson will probably never win a playoff series against LeBron James. I guess that's kind of like saying Drake will never get together with Nicki Minaj, or that I will grow a second head. Some laws are immutable, and this is one of them. It's the Lance Stephenson Doctrine: Thou Shalt Not Advance in the Playoffs Against LeBron.

Stephenson can huff and puff and try to blow Bron's house down, but when the dust settles, the King remains the King. James' 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in Game 5 of the Indiana Pacers-Cleveland Cavaliers first-round series put the Cavs one game away from vanquishing another pretender to the throne. No matter how it ends, though, the series will stand as another chapter in an epic LeBron-Lance rivalry that dates back to the 2012 playoffs.

Stephenson, in a way, is the anti-LeBron: the 40th overall selection in the 2010 NBA draft and something of a project who developed into a useful role player and made a name for himself through his tenacity and personality. LeBron, on the other hand, was a can't-miss No. 1 pick who seemed destined to become an all-time great.

That Stephenson has grown into LeBron's most persistent annoyance should not be a surprise. Nor has he given up that title. He's pushed, shoved, cajoled and coerced James as much as possible in the hope that, one sweet day, he'll break the spirit of the game's best player. Still, Lance—ever the underdog—has yet to come out on top.

Indeed, Lance vs. LeBron might be the greatest one-sided rivalry in sports since the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals (or the Cleveland Browns versus the other 31 teams in the NFL), but how did it start? Why does this titanic struggle endure through the six different stops Stephenson has made in his NBA career and the seven straight Finals James has reached? Why has Lance refused to concede defeat? Why hasn't LeBron just punched him in the face?

So many questions, which we will attempt to answer with an entirely too detailed examination of their duel. In the process, we hope to explain to you, the faithful reader, why the real winner of this rivalry is not LeBron, but Lance, a folk hero for our modern times.

Stephenson had always been a pest, starting with his miming of the universal symbol for choking when James missed a free throw in the third quarter of a Pacers win in the 2012 Eastern Conference semis. In a series the Miami Heat won, it was a blip on the radar. But what really jump-started their animus was the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, when Stephenson blew in LeBron's ear during Game 5. Creepy, yet simultaneously hilarious, the moment cemented the feud in the imaginations of NBA fans everywhere. To this day, it remains a legendary meme. LeBron did his best to deny Stephenson the satisfaction of a visible reaction, but he still offered up a mild headshake of disbelief. That someone would go to these lengths to disrupt his game was hard for LeBron to accept, but it was only the beginning.


In Game 6 of those 2014 conference finals, Stephenson tried to burrow deeper into LeBron's psyche. Instead of invading his space with his breath, he touched LeBron's mouth. It was almost a slap but slightly more playful than that. It comes off sort of like he's trying to feed a pet, if his pet were a human being who's very good at basketball.

I don't even know what this was, toward the end of this compilation. In the same Game 6 in 2014, Stephenson wouldn't let LeBron get up after falling on the baseline. Was he sitting on him? Expressing dominance? Showing off the high quality of the stitching on his shorts? Whatever it was, it sent a message to LeBron: I'm up here, and you're down there.

One of Stephenson's most potent weapons in his war with LeBron is the flop. Even the most minor contact can send Stephenson flying across the court as though he'd been kicked by an angry racehorse. He played dead here in Game 2 of the 2014 East finals but was aware of the cameras enough that he opened his eyes to glance forward, barely stifling a wink. With this, Stephenson established himself as the quintessential "guy they warned you about."


Pity the man when he tries to face up the GOAT. Stephenson did his best to go one-on-one with LeBron in Game 2 of the first round in 2017 and failed spectacularly. But, as a consummate troll, he fouled immediately. One must remind his foe that the battle might have been lost, but the war continues.


Stephenson's flop in this game from earlier in the 2017-18 season didn't just amaze fans for its brazenness; it also appeared to injure LeBron. Perhaps Lance had finally gone too far.


Or not. In Game 4 of this first-round series, Stephenson tied up LeBron and forced a jump ball during the final minutes of a close contest. Preventing James from scoring was something of a victory, but Stephenson took it to another level, snatching the ball from his opponent's hands and raising it like a big-game hunter's trophy. Stephenson's face was simultaneously proud and shocked as he played to the home crowd in Indianapolis that has come to love him despite his deficiencies as a player.

And that is the genius of Lance Stephenson. That's the reason he is still occupying LeBron's attention all these years later. Despite his physical inability to truly challenge LeBron on the basketball court, he's crafted a career out of being an irritant. He's known. He's loved. Sometimes, he's hated, but most importantly, he's become a character.

In the modern NBA, it's better to be seen than not. Stephenson wins not because he'll ever be the lead scoring option on a championship team, but because he's demanded we notice him despite that.


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