Stephenson was an integral part of those two Pacers teams that went to back-to-back conference finals in 2013 and 2014. Both times they ran into LeBron James’ Miami Heat, whose streak of six consecutive NBA Finals appearances is still ongoing.
Now, facing a 2-0 deficit in the first round and a different James-led team in the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephenson is saying all the right things.
“It’s the playoffs. The playoffs get me hyped, wanting to get up every day and play each day,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s not just because of LeBron.”
Stephenson was hesitant to engage the topic of James, perhaps given his infamous ear-blowing incident in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. But the reality is that Stephenson was a pest on the defensive end then, and, to a lesser degree, he’s still an irritant to James and his teammates this time around.
Despite his circuitous NBA path, Stephenson was one of only a handful of players who ever had a chance at slowing down James. Aside from being physical, what’s Stephenson’s strategy?
“You just gotta tame him,” Stephenson said. “He’s playing so well right now. His jump shot has really improved. Just gotta get into him, make him pass the ball. Make his teammates make decisions.”
Stephenson slammed the ball out of frustration in the third quarter Monday night as the Cavs continued to exploit him on the defensive end. He also talked trash to Kyrie Irving, which backfired when the Cavs point guard tallied 37 points. Stephenson is a lightning rod, equally capable of sparking his team in either direction. That the Pacers, and George in particular, felt they needed someone to bring energy and toughness to their team says as much about Stephenson as it does about the state of the Pacers. And if they’re going to drag themselves out of their 2-0 deficit, they’re going to need Stephenson to channel his emotion.
That’s not to say they don’t want him to be himself.
“Just letting me play, letting me play without thinking,” Stephenson said of why the Pacers are a good fit. “Think a lot of teams had me playing, just thinking too much. I got here, just be yourself. Let me play through mistakes. Don’t sub me for every little mistake. They’re just letting me be myself.”
But before landing a three-year, $12 million deal in late March with the Pacers, Stephenson signed two 10-day contracts with the Minnesota Timberwolves in an effort to latch on somewhere. It was Pacers president Larry Bird who finally helped Stephenson find a more permanent home.
“(Bird) believing in me, being that he was such a great player,” Stephenson said. “Him believing in me, giving me that confidence and letting me be myself. I feel like him doing that for me is making me a better player.”