Two weeks after he participated in a free-agent tryout in Cleveland, recently signed Timberwolves guard Lance Stephenson and teammates on Tuesday meet the defending NBA champions Cavaliers during their only visit this season to Target Center.
And nobody on his new team knows Cavs superstar LeBron James quite like Stephenson.
He once faced the game’s greatest active player in three consecutive and contentious Eastern Conference playoff series that featured some youthful gamesmanship when Stephenson was one of Indiana’s rising young stars.
His advice now to the Wolves’ less experienced?
“Just play hard, just play smart,” Stephenson said. “Try to get into him without getting a foul. Your teammates have to have your back while you’re guarding him at the same time.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau praised Stephenson’s defensive versatility when the team last week signed him to a 10-day contract that the Cavaliers failed to offer Stephenson after he, Jordan Farmar, Kirk Hinrich and James’ former Miami teammate Mario Chalmers worked out for the Cavs.
That tryout came at the same time the Cavaliers thumped the Wolves in Cleveland two weeks ago. Those teams play again Tuesday, this time with James and Kyrie Irving leading a Cavs team again missing former Wolves star Kevin Love, who’s out because of a knee injury after back spasms sidelined him two weeks ago.
In three games with his new team, Stephenson has defended point guards as well as others while playing anywhere from 20 minutes in his Wolves’ debut against Toronto on Wednesday to 12 minutes Friday against New Orleans.
He likely will be asked defend at least some on Tuesday a 260-pound “small” forward whose 27-point, 12-assist, 8-rebound performance beat the Wolves two weeks ago 125-97.
Thibodeau was asked if Stephenson is versatile enough to defend point guards and strong enough to defend James, too.
“I don’t know if anyone’s strong enough,” Thibodeau said. “He’s [James] strong, powerful, quick. You need your whole team to lock into that. Lance has played him before. You’ve got to have an understanding of what you’re willing to live with.”
Stephenson’s Pacers team lost to James and Miami in six second-round games in the 2012 playoffs, in seven provocative games in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals and in six games in the 2014 East Finals.
“He played on Indiana teams that went deep into the playoffs, and they were an excellent defensive team so he has that knowledge,” Thibodeau said. “He has been around the league and has a good understanding of individual tendencies, team tendencies. I think that’s a plus. That’s one of the plusses of being a veteran. You’ve played against a guy 30, 40 times, maybe more. When you look at it the last six years, that adds up.”
The Cavaliers worked out those four aforementioned players two weeks and didn’t sign any of them, opting instead to sign just-released Derrick Williams — the former Wolves’ No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011 — on Thursday.
The Wolves signed Stephenson the day before that.
“I’m just happy to be where I’m at,” Stephenson said. “I’m focused on helping this group, being the best teammate I can be here.
… I really feel like I can help this squad. I feel like this is the best opportunity for me. I think they’re close. I think they’re just one player away. I feel like with my help and my experience, I can definitely help those guys.”
Now 26, Stephenson believes he is the kind of experienced player and leader the Wolves need. In his younger days, Stephenson was the guy who flashed a choke gesture when he was a little-used bench player in the 2012 playoffs and famously blew in James’ ear in an attempt to unnerve him during the 2014 playoffs.
When asked two weeks ago about the four players the Cavaliers worked out that day, James said, “I got a history with all those guys. I got a history with Lance, too. “
He also said that day he’d be willing to play with any of the four.
“I just want to win,” said James, whose team had lost seven of 11 games then but now has won five of its last six. “That’s all that matters to me. I don’t have any personal problems with nobody.”
Stephenson seemed surprised Monday to be asked about his particular past with James.
“Oh, man, that’s what, four years ago?” Stephenson said. “I’m a different person now. I’m just trying to win. I’ll do whatever it takes to win, but I’m not going to use that method again.”