Last of a Dying Breed: The Rivalry between Paul Pierce and LeBron James

Posted by Clevis Murray on Tuesday, May 06, 2014 with No comments

Game-Winners, Dunks, screaming, stare downs etc., "The Truth" and "King James" have had tremendous battles in the playoffs dating back to 2008 when Paul Pierce was with the Boston Celtics and LeBron James was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those two going at it back in '08 during the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals gauged my interest, passion and love for the game of basketball. It wasn't Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird, Jordan-NBA or Russell-Wilt — it was Pierce-James. The two future Hall of Famers are the epitome of what a true rivalry is, especially one-on-one duels which are dying in the NBA. The coronation of this rivalry was in '08 when the two went at it for a classic Game 7 and the right to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons.

I remember watching the game and seeing a then, much smaller James go at it against Pierce as they both displayed the heart of a champion. That game was a somewhat passing of the torch — Pierce was the best Small Forward for a certain period of time and from that game on James became the embodiment of a freakish human being. In that Game 7, James had 45 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. His opponent Pierce had 41 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. What signified the Celtics victory when I watched was when Pierce was at the free-throw line and the ball went up-up-up and raddled down. That moment was symbolic of Red Auerbach but that game in general was the start of something special.

"I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn't let up," Pierce said. "Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose. We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again.....I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did."

New year, new date, same players. In the 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals the two legends would meet again to fuel their rivalry. Coming into this series, the No. 1 seeded Cavaliers were thought as the heavy favorites to win the series and people within the organization hoped that theory was true as their star would become a free agent. The two would both go-off and have their star-like games but at different times but the two still went at it nonetheless. LeBron played like "King James" while Pierce was only "The Truth" in spurts. James averaged 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists; compared to Pierce's 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists despite the stellar performance of James, Piece was the war as the Celtics moved on 4 games to 2. The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals but would eventually lose the Los Angeles Lakers in a historic 7-game series. The winds of change would soon blow over the city of Cleveland and LeBron James.  

LeBron James needed a change of scenery as his body in a wine and gold uniform wasn't as enticing as a hot uniform. James would go on to join the Miami Heat alongside of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a formidable "Big-3".  In his allegiance with Wade and Bosh, LeBron had the talent needed to finally overcome the threat of the Boston Celtics in the eastern conference.  

"As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland," James said. "As much as I loved home, I knew I couldn't do it by myself against that team."

It was the the Celtics "Big-3" plus-1 (Rajon Rondo) against LeBron and friends but he knew what he needed to in order to compete against Pierce and the Celtics.  The Narrative of their eventually 2011 playoff match-up was the villain (James) versus the hero (Pierce). The two met again on a even playing field as both of their teams were now loaded. Their battle was great as they went at it and not only did the two individual players have a rivalry but their teams had one as well. In that series, Game 4 was the best game between the two as James had 35 points and 14 rebounds in a astonishing performance; Pierce had 27 points and 8 rebounds. Game 4 was a crucial game as Pierce was looking to tie the series 2-2 but as the game came to a conclusion it was James who won the game giving his team a commanding 3-1 lead.

Game 5 was the passing of the torch team wise as the Miami Heat finished lunch in five games and James had gotten the better of Pierce that series. What stood out the most in Game 5 was how James took over the game in the closing minutes. As the crowd chanted "Lets-Go-Heat" I watched the game and saw Wade pass James the ball on the left wing and with no hesitation he shot the 3-pointer over Pierce (ironic right?). On the next possession, James played pestering defense and on the next Boston possession "The Captain" just broke down mentally with a key turnover. "King James" came back at Pierce and hit a step-back three over him and just stood there with a face ready to kill as he was breathing heavy and TNT commentator, Kevin Harlan said, "That might be the dagger" and that shot certainly was. Thought James was done with proving a point? Then you thought wrong, as soon as Pierce caught the ball, James stole it and rode the rim. James screaming after the next Celtics collapse, scoring on Pierce again and his Tim Tebow pose at the end had signified his rivalry with the captain as he finally beat him in a series and making their rivalry even more competitive.

"They the reason why all three of us came together," James said.

The lockout shortened season couldn't ruin another matchup as the two met in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was the old, hungry and battered Celtics against the young, hungry and multi-talented Heat. This series was terrific as Boston was on their last legs looking for one more title and Miami looking to win a title after a disappointing NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks the previous season.  

During Game 5, with less than a minute to go, the score was 87-86 Celtics and Boston needed a clutch basket. Rondo passed the ball to Pierce and James was guarding him, it was like the game was moving in super slow motion at the point. Pierce dribbling low and looking in James' eyes Pierce suddenly pulls up for three and drains the shot as he told "The Truth" to "King James" that he still got it. Pierce had his little moment in Game 5 but Game 6 is a game in which one might've thought if God finally came back and resurrected in the body of LeBron James because on that night he was possessed. In that game, James closed on history like he does a chase-down block, the moment came for him to show his power and show his subjects why he's called the "King" and "Chosen one."

In Game 6, James stepped up for 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists on 73.1% shooting. LeBron showed up that night but Pierce didn't as he must've been in awe like everyone else at the poetry and pure dominance put on display by James. We've heard of the term "Black man gone wild" and that was what happened when the chains were unleashed from James and he terrorized TD Garden that night. Game 7 was one filled with emotions and I don't think that any Hollywood screen writer could've written it up any better without missing the smallest detail. The last time both Pierce and James played in a Game 7 was in 2008 in which both players had commendable outings but on June 9, 2012 the night belonged to James as his Heat burned the Celtics 101-88 as he had 31 points and 12 rebounds and his long 3-pointer over Brandon Bass added to the destruction. Riding a wave of momentum, the Miami Heat would go onto win their second NBA championship as they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games and as for the Celtics, the winds of change were now headed in their direction.

In 2013 the rivalry took a 1-year break but LeBron did say something interesting about the rivalry in that span.

"I would say that I don't really have an individual rivalry," James said. "I think the closest would be Paul Pierce," James said in June. "I would say Boston is a rival of mine because I've met them so many times in the postseason. I've been able to advance against them, they've sent me home fishing a few times. So I would say Boston and Paul Pierce would kind of be that guy, if I had to name just one guy. Paul was one of those rival guys, but I've been going against different guys the last few years," James said. "It's not just one guy.......I haven't played against one individual for a long period of time — since basically it was me and Paul. Me and Paul, we had so many duels and almost every year we were going against Boston whether I was in Cleveland the last few years or Miami … So, I don't know if there is one particular guy. There are some teams I believe are very competitive in both conferences, but it's not just one guy."

In 2013, James would go to win another NBA title and Pierce had a brief playoff run as the New York Knicks eliminated the Celtics. Just a few weeks after the playoff defeat, draft night came around and in a mind blowing trade, Pierce was traded to the Brooklyn Nets and had a decent season there as he is primarily there to add another ring to his collection but one man stands in his way — LeBron James.

2014 marks the rekindling of the rivalry as Pierce is a "glorified role player" and James is the clear-cut best player in the league. It's not the same as Celtics-Cavs/Heat but it's better than nothing. The two have met in the playoffs 5 of the last 7 years (including this year) with their personal record being tied 2-2.

Paul Pierce: "I rank LeBron as 1 of the greatest players 2 ever play the game.... He's the ultimate challenge."

Pierce vs. LeBron Regular Season:
Player
PPG
RPG
APG
W-L
LeBron James
30.8
6.1
6.4
15-19
Paul Pierce
22.0
6.0
4.2
19-15


Pierce vs. LeBron playoffs:
Player
PPG
RPG
APG
W-L
LeBron James
28.9
8.8
5.6
13-12
Paul Pierce
17.6
4.9
3.1
12-13


Both have had kind words to say off the court but we all know that once the ball is in the air for tip-off that their admiration for each other is a lost thought. This series, but the rivalry in particular should be cherished since this will most likely be the final time we see these two icons face one another under the bright lights on a national platform as it will come to an √©clat ending . It's been great to see the evolution of the two men and their competitive spirit for each other and hopefully whomever is James's next rival (Kevin Durant) has taken the time to watch this storybook battle from beginning to finish.