Frank Vogel tried to say it wasn’t much of a story. And he was the one who brought it up.
Sorry, Frank. Too late.
The Indiana coach told reporters after his team’s 99-92 win over Miami on Tuesday night that Pacers guard Lance Stephenson requested before the game to check LeBron James.
“He asked to guard him. He asked to guard him,’’ said Vogel, seemingly really wanting to really emphasize that. “He’s a competitor. We know Paul (George) is getting worn out a little bit guarding LeBron the whole game that he’s in there. Lance said, ‘Let me share some of the load.’’’
Stephenson did a heck of a job as the Pacers evened the Eastern Conference finals 2-2 with the win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not only did he score 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, but he also helped hold the Heat star to 24 points on 8-of-18 marksmanship, with James fouling out with 56 seconds remaining.
Vogel later was pressed on Stephenson having made the request. Perhaps he realized then this was something that could fire up James for Game 5 Thursday in Miami and beyond.
“We were just talking,’’ Vogel said. “Let’s not make a bigger story than that is. We were just talking about loosening the load on Paul. And we used Sam (Young) some and Lance was like, ‘I’ll guard him some, too.’ We’ll all share in it. It wasn’t about any major story there.’’
Perhaps it will become major for James.
Michael Jordan was famous for using anything he could for motivation. If Jordan ever heard somebody asked to guard him, he would have lit the hapless foe up for 50 the next game.
So Stephenson better watch out for James when they next meet. In case you’re wondering, a 50 spot by James would top his career playoff high of 49 points.
“If you are sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one matchup between me and Lance Stephenson, I’m not going to harp on that,’’ James said.
It would be a surprise if James doesn’t use Stephenson’s request to guard him for motivation. For starters, Stephenson has hardly been the most popular guy during the King’s reign.
Stephenson gave James a choke sign when he missed a free throw in Game 3 of an East semifinal last year against the Heat. He was approached angrily by Miami forward Juwan Howard before Game 4. And then-Heat center Dexter Pittman had a vicious hit on Stephenson in Game 5, getting Pittman a three-game suspension.
The third-year man was the victim of another Heat blow when Dwyane Wade hit him in the head with an elbow in last Friday’s Game 2. No foul was called, but Wade later was assessed a flagrant foul. Some thought Wade might be suspended.
“I’m going to be truthfully honest,’’ center Roy Hibbert, who totaled 23 points and 12 rebounds as his Pacers won the board battle 49-30, said about Stephenson’s choke sign last year and how far he’s come. “Lance is a great player for us. He’s still young. This is really his rookie season despite the years he has. He’s playing consistent minutes this year. He has to grow up and is continuing to grow.’’
Yes, Stephenson is. He drilled a 3-pointer from the deep right corner at the third-quarter buzzer to give the Pacers a 77-70 lead.
The Pacers then blew an 81-72 lead. But Stephenson had a pair of jumpers in the final five minutes as Indiana closed the game with a 13-3 run after falling behind 89-86.
It wasn’t a great ending for James, especially after he chased down Pacers guard George Hill for a brilliant block with 6:54 left when the Heat were making their comeback. He had four fouls in the final 7:07 and was disqualified with 56 seconds remaining on a controversial offensive foul.
It was the first time James fouled out of a game since June 3, 2012, Game 4 of last year’s Eastern finals against Boston. It marked just the second time in 128 career playoff games he has been disqualified.
“I didn’t believe it was an offensive foul,’’ James said. “I was going to set a screen, and I felt like I was stationary. And D-Wade rejected the pick-and-roll. Lance actually ran into me.’’
Still, James was complimentary about part of Stephenson’s game.
“Offensively, he played extremely well,’’ James said. “He attacked us. He got some offensive rebounds. He got one offensive rebound for a tipback.’’
Notice, though, James said nothing about Stephenson’s defense. James, after all, doesn’t believe anybody can guard him.
Stephenson did a solid job Tuesday. The problem is he still must face James at least two more times in this series.
It might not have helped that Vogel made it a story that Stephenson asked to guard James.