How do you solve a problem like Lance Stephenson? The third-year man has averaged a career-high 13.9 points per game for Indiana this year, though he has struggled mightily in the last two games. The bigger story which has emerged, however, is what pundits call his “antics” and what the Internet simply dubs “trolling.” In Game 5, Stephenson used a questionable defensive tactic by blowing into the ear of LeBron James, who was in the midst of a foul-troubled, seven-point game which was the worst of his playoff career. Elsewhere, Russell Westbrook is the crux of the Thunder discussion, as he has pretty much been since the James Harden trade, and Gregg Popovich doesn’t want to hear any more of your stupid, stock interview questions.
1. Lance Stephenson ruffles Larry Bird’s jimmies when he has fun on the basketball court: Lance Stephenson isn’t quite Paul George in the sense that his success determines that of his team’s, but his play this season has nevertheless been important. Essentially playing for his life in a contract year, Stephenson, like the rest of his teammates, came out of the gate strong before potentially losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $20-30 million via his drop off in play during the second half of the season. He has returned in the playoffs, however, putting up several impressive games, including a 25-point explosion in Game 2 against Miami. His recent actions include the aforementioned “defensive tactic,” playing dead on the court and sneaking into the Heat’s huddle with Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers. Pacers President Larry Bird is apparently not a fan of Stephenson’s hijinks, but that probably doesn’t matter. A lot of people adopted the argument of “Jordan wouldn’t have done that,” which is also pretty irrelevant and asinine. This isn’t the first time a player has used a playground-like strategy in the NBA (just ask noted “grizzled veteran” Vince Carter), and it won’t be the last. What this seems to boil down to is a reminder that these guys play a game which is hyper-competitive and ridiculously stressful, and sometimes they should be allowed to have a little bit of fun.
2. Russell Westbrook rules his own universe, and we all have to deal with the consequences: There is perhaps no more polarizing player in the league right now than Russell Westbrook. People who love him really love him, and everyone else looks away when he throws up yet another early-in-the-shot-clock, 30-foot jumper with a wide-open Kevin Durant in his periphery, hands awaiting the delivery of the basketball. When Westbrook is good, he elevates his teammates. Which, really, isn’t that the objective of a point guard? Sure, the errant shots present an opportunity cost analysis which could form the basis of a Harvard case study, but Westbrook’s explosiveness leads fans to believe that anything can happen at any time, perhaps even more so than when the ball is in Durant’s hands. Case-in-point: Westbrook is averaging 26.6 points per game in this year’s playoffs, including a 40-point, 10-assist explosion against San Antonio on Tuesday night which led Magic Johnson, among others, to stake this claim:
Granted, Magic’s basketball analysis on Twitter is generally pretty pedestrian and safe; he makes Captain Obvious look like Red Auerbach. Still, that doesn’t make Magic or anyone else wrong, and Westbrook’s influence on the series, especially since the return of Serge Ibaka, could go a long way in determining the outcome of this series.
3. Gregg Popovich just wants to coach basketball, so get out of his face and let him: Professional sports interviews are kind of a funny way of trying to relate these seemingly larger-than-life people to viewers at home. In-game interviews are especially ridiculous, as they require coaches and players to discuss what they’ve just seen or done in analytical terms. Most of the time, the coaches just want to talk to their players, and the players just want some Gatorade and a warm towel or something.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has turned the sports interview into his own theatre for Dylanesque displays of rhetoric and alienation of the media. He has taken both TNT’s David Aldridge and ESPN’s Doris Burke to class on multiple occasions, but it seems like the intensity of the playoffs has made Pop even less prone to clarity and obedience. A postgame interview yielded a question about the disparate point differentials in the Thunder series, and the interviewer seemed convinced that Popovich could explain why each team’s victories had resulted in blowouts. The Spurs coach was absolutely NOT having any of that.