After the Golden State Warriors completed a sweep of the Utah Jazz in round two, Kevin Garnett used his new TV segment “Area 21” to reunite his former Boston Celtics Teammates, from the 2008 championship, to talk everything basketball. This segment was broken down excellently in the link provided, but a specific segment towards the end of this video clip deserved some deeper digging.
In the clip (at the 5:53 mark) Paul says, “I think I’m the last player that really competed against him (LeBron James).”
This is obviously a subjective take, and a twitter poll ran negated this, but in a sense Pierce was the last true challenger to LeBron. Pierce was the last player to lead his team past a LeBron team en route to the NBA Finals, all the way back in 2010. Since then, the King has made the past six, winning three.
After playoff losses to Pierce’s Boston Celtics in 2008 and 2010, LeBron knew he had to get himself some help. Pierce was a handful, but the elements of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the rest of those Celtic squads proved too much to handle. In the Summer of 2010, LeBron took his talents to Miami, getting himself the talent to finally take down the Celtics. This would spark what is an ongoing run of six consecutive finals appearances.
At this time, the Celtics were aging. Kevin Garnett had consecutive years with injury riddled seasons and Ray Allen joined LeBron and company. Pierce did not care. After losing in five games to the Heat in 2011, Pierce helped lead the Celtics in what would have been another finals appearance if LeBron did not have the greatest game of his career in Game 6.
In this Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, while down 3-2 in the series, LeBron finished with 45 points and 15 rebounds in the game that finally proved he could win in big playoff games. This game not only saved the Heat’s season, but stole a closeout game in Boston to steal momentum. The Heat never looked back.
In a sense this was the last true challenge to a LeBron team in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics blew up their roster a year later, leaving James with a clear path to the Finals.
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Paul George and the Indiana Pacers forced an exciting 7-game series, pushing the Heat to their limit. Many will argue that George challenged LeBron in this series, making him the last player to truly challenge him. But let’s not forget what that series was truly about.
The Pacers were able to push the Heat to 7 largely due to the team defense and offensive balance they possessed. The Heat had no true big man, and the Pacers exploited this, letting Roy Hibbert loose while he was playing at the highest level of his career.
The Heat also lacked real outside threats, with their offense relying on LeBron, who had still not fully developed his 3-point stroke, and a slasher in Dwyane Wade. The Pacers were able to counter-attack this offensive attack with tough defense led by Lance Stephenson on the perimeter and Roy Hibbert in the paint.
Paul George had a good series with great games. He also had bad games that really hurt the Pacers in their fight of beating the Heat.
In a Game 3 loss, a home game in which the series was tied going into it, George had 13 points (3-10) and was a -17 for the game. Then in a Game 7 with title aspirations on the line, he had 7 points (2-9) and was a -14 for the game. Those are big games, the games in which Pierce typically shows up.
The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, in which an aging Pierce who showed signs of fatigue, Pierce tallied a combined 28 points in the pivotal game 6 and 7. This was unlike Pierce and a sign that his decline was imminent, but this series does not define what he did against James in their previous battles.
In the 2008 Eastern semis, Pierce averaged 19.4 points per game, with tons of clutch buckets in crunch time. LeBron countered with 26.7 points per game, lower than his regular season average for that year, and shot 35% from the field doing so. Pierce did his job, getting his crew the win at the same time.
In the 2010 semis, Pierce only managed to muster 13.5 points per game. On the surface, many would argue that’s not getting it done. ESPN analyst Brian Windhorst reminded that the C’s focus “was to have Pierce concentrate on defending James and not to put as much emphasis on his own offense … Over the last three games of the series, which the Celtics won … Pierce averaged just 14.3 points. But his defense helped the Celtics hold James to averages of just 21.3 points and 34 percent shooting.”
Those number and percentages are unlike LeBron. Paul George, who was known for his perimeter defense capabilities at the time, did not come close to containing James like that. Pierce never backed down from James. He embraced the challenge and had the confidence needed to beat LeBron.
Yes, Pierce did have help. Yes, LeBron was still young and had a less talented roster than he does now and when he was in Miami. This does not take anything away from Pierce did against James in those series.
Regardless of what your opinion is on this, it’s tough not to realize how great these series were. The past few years, LeBron has had cake-walked through the East, letting us reminisce over battles like these.
Until someone steps up to LeBron with the confidence to win, he’s going to keep making Finals appearances. Players like DeMar DeRozan are admitting they are not up to the task.