The LeBron James-Lance Stephenson rivalry is among the NBA’s strangest and most entertaining.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers’ first-round series tied, 2-2, James and Stephenson, old rivals dating back to 2012, have been going at it.
The rivalry is almost entirely one-sided, with James’ teams beating Stephenson’s at every turn. But Stephenson, a career journeyman who has only ever played well for the Pacers, is one of the few players who seems to revel in taunting James.
From face-tapping to trash-talking to, of course, ear-blowing, here’s the history of one of the most bizarre rivalries in the NBA.
LeBron James’ rivalry with Lance Stephenson dates back to 2012, when the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers met in the playoffs.
The Cavs were one of the top teams in the East while the Pacers were a scrappy, defensive, upstart team. While Indiana could throw several good defenders at James, Stephenson earned the role as instigator.
It began when early in the series, James was shooting technical free throws, which he missed, prompting Stephenson to make a “choking” gesture at James.
Stephenson actually apologised for the incident, and James tried to downplay any talk of his back-and-forth with Stephenson, saying: “Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.”
The Heat-Pacers rivalry only heated things up over time, as for three years, Stephenson made it his mission to annoy James.
The most famous incident was when Stephenson blew in James’ ear, an all-time great display of odd mind games.
For a heated rivalry, it’s never turned truly physical. Perhaps the biggest physical back-and-forth we’ve seen was in 2013, when James hit Stephenson in the face while contesting a shot. Stephenson later got him back, tapping James’ face, and for the first time, seeming to truly get under his skin.
Though James often downplayed the rivalry, Stephenson gloated about getting into James’ head.
“To me, I think it’s a sign of weakness,” Stephenson of James responding to his antics. “Because he never used to say nothing to me … 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.”
Unfortunately, for Stephenson, the Heat always ended up on top, beating the Pacers twice in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Things didn’t cool down once James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, however.
Stephenson hopped around the NBA from 2014 to 2017, nearly falling out of the league, but returned to the Pacers at the end of last season and once again found a role.
Surprisingly, James and Stephenson mostly avoided any incidents in the Cavs’ first-round sweep of the Pacers last season.
But things started off quickly in the 2017-18 season. On November 1, Stephenson earned a flagrant foul for hitting James in the groin.
Lance Stephenson got a flagrant 1 for this shot to LeBron's groin. pic.twitter.com/nFs0o9lyTY
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 2, 2017
In January, in a Pacers win over the Cavs, James referred to Stephenson as “dirty” after being given a technical foul for shoving Stephenson.
“Lance is just a little dirty, that’s all,” James said. “I mean, we got history, so I should have 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.”
And it’s carried over to this year’s first-round series. Stephenson has been up to all of his usual antics, trying to get under James’ skin. One particular incident even earned a smile from James.
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 15, 2018
In Game 4 on Sunday, Stephenson drew another technical on James by flopping when James gave him a little push. The entire game was a bit scrappy.
James once again turned to the high school analogy after the game.
“I mean, I shouldn’t have even gotten a tech in the first place,” James said. “There’s a timeout called and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge and he falls to half court. Come on.
“But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary [school]. It’s like I tell you a joke, you know, I tell you a joke and you laugh and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke, I laughed, teacher caught me, now I’ve got to go see the principal.”
The Pacers have given the Cavs all they can handle and the series is tied 2-2. With two more games to play, expect more fireworks between LeBron and Lance.
Now, see how far many of the NBA’s biggest stars have come…
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