It’s not exactly audacious of Victor Oladipo to believe that he could outplay LeBron James in a playoff game. Sure, he’s going to be wrong more times than not, but a team like the Pacers needs Oladipo to believe in himself to that extent for them to have a legitimate chance of beating the Cavaliers. Such confidence preceded Oladipo countering James’ Game 1 triple double with his own line of 32 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and an 18-point victory.
That’s basically been the NBA for the past eight years: The King and many offerings of worthy contenders attempting to match up against him.
What’s far more audacious—and a little bit more interesting—is Lance Stephenson’s supreme belief that he can match up with LeBron James, not really in the broader context of a playoff series, but in each and every moment he’s within shouting distance of him. To Stephenson, LeBron James is one thing: a rival.
And really the reason this is even worth committing conversation to is the vague and uncharacteristic ways that James seems to almost acknowledge this rivalry.
There are no shortages of players who have hoped and tried to have a rivalry with James, and he has given them no more time of day than he would if you were to tweet at him in all caps, “I AM YOUR RIVAL.” His goal has always been to be great, and greatness can’t be rivaled.
Uninterested in rivalries, Duncan and Nowitzki more or less took what was theirs before respectfully passing the torch. Garnett and Pierce will go to their deathbeds claiming to be James’ rivals. But after bullying and showering James with what was, in all likelihood, a multitude of shameful insults and coming seemingly close to breaking his spirit, he still didn’t exactly engage. Instead, he never cracked a smile during a 2012 Game 6 annihilation (45 points on 73 percent shooting, 15 rebounds, and six assists) that basically said, “We’re done with whatever you think this is between us.”
Steph and Draymond have probably come closest to really creating a rivalry by countering the league’s best player with the league’s best collection of players.
Then there’s Pacers’ reserve Lance Stephenson, who against all odds, will get his chapter in the most exhaustive biography of James’ career. This is a man who carries himself as if his inner dialogue has long been drowned out by an endless loop of Bobby Shmurda beats. He plays in aggressive and ambitious bursts that are usually peppered with careless mistakes. His baskets and assists tend to just hit harder.
Lance Stephenson 😭😭 pic.twitter.com/T9M89gK2nP— The Daily Dunk (@dailydunkfr) April 15, 2018
And for whatever reason, when Lance talks, LeBron talks back. When Stephenson hit his head against the stanchion, James mimicked him later in the game. While Oladipo does everything in his power to lead the Pacers past the Cavs, it’s hard not to watch what seems like James’ slightest giddy eagerness to put Stephenson in his place.
Maybe it’s because James barely remembers the joyful freedom that Stephenson exudes with his playground-style of game. Stephenson was a New York basketball prodigy by the time he was in eighth grade, matching up against the Mecca’s toughest players and given the nickname “Born Ready.” He knows James is bigger and stronger and faster than him, but he’s not remotely scared because he knows he’s more skilled than him. This notion is inspiring because it is in so many words a metaphor for any of life’s challenges. It is also hilarious because Stephenson is absolutely not more skilled than James.
James was the most hyped high school athlete in history. He could do everything that makes basketball fun to watch by the time he was 15. The world was ready to watch him and he knew that putting on a show—step back threes, no-look passes, breakaway dunks, switching on to whichever poor kid might be considered the second best player in the country—was how he could leverage a $90 million dollar deal out of Nike at the age of 18.
Then the goals became much, much higher, and James couldn’t concern himself with the suggestion that he has peers. The big picture is far more important. Body maintenance, adding subtle layers to his game, championships, being an ambassador for the game, so on and so forth.
There’s a pureness to Stephenson’s in-the-moment approach to basketball. He does the kind of things James is capable of, just not as well and not as often. But he has just as much fun on the court. There’s a world where, without the expectation of greatness, a guy like James could live that basketball life where, instead of strategically clapping back to Laura Ingraham or deciding if his coach should be fired, he’s forcing behind-the-back passes and trying to stunt on Kevin Durant.
Maybe, Stephenson helps him live that fantasy. It’s how I choose to explain this being James’ reaction during what was an embarrassing loss to kick off what will be an extremely challenging run at a title.
This is all i'm thinking about until Game 2 pic.twitter.com/4upBCo3ebp— 🚁Sky Wob🚁 (@World_Wide_Wob) April 15, 2018
If Stephenson is truly succeeding in getting James to acknowledge his existence then, in some ways, he’s already done his job by distracting him from the larger mission.
But by Year 15 of LeBron James, we know full well that he always has a couple unworldly and historic performances in the chamber, ready to unleash. He’s likely planning on saving them for late May or June. But wouldn’t it be something if he carved one out especially for Lance Stephenson, of all people?
Either way, the NBA’s most lopsided rivalry might also be its most entertaining.