Pierce isn't rising to the challenge
For the Celtics to win, their captain must stand up to LeBron
It's hard to point fingers after you've suffered the worst home playoff loss in the history of the franchise. This was an Enronian collapse by the Celtics with plenty of blame to go around.
So let's start at the top. What has happened to Paul Pierce in this series?
Is the Celtics captain simply spooked by the prospect of having to defend and go against the league's two-time MVP again and again? Guarding LeBron James, first-team All-NBA, and being guarded by LeBron James, first-team All-Defense, makes for harrowing, even hazardous duty. But this hasn't been a matchup. It's been a walkover.
No one expects Pierce to match LeBron basket for basket or to smother him defensively. But what was a pretty good matchup two years ago -- remember the epic Game 7 Pierce delivered -- has turned into a one-man show. James had outscored the entire Celtics team by the time Pierce made his first exit with 3:15 left in the first quarter, having missed all five of his shots. It was a trend that would continue throughout, ending only when the final horn sounded and the Cavaliers had a stunning 124-95 victory and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Pierce didn't exactly dazzle against Miami, but he was good enough (19.6 points per game) and shot well enough (45.7 percent) to be a factor. He was instrumental in turning around Game 1 with an 11-point third quarter and then knocked down the game winner at the end of Game 3. He started out strong in this series, connecting on four of his first five shots. Since then? He has made only nine of 37 shots. He was 4-of-15 in Game 3.
In only two of the 12 quarters in this series has Pierce made more than one basket. In three of the quarters, he has pitched a shutout. He finished with 11 points in Game 3 and is averaging a Kendrick Perkins-like 12.7 points and shooting an un-Piercelike 31 percent from the field.
Not to belabor the point, but the estimable James is averaging 32.3 points a game and shooting 54 percent. He had 38 in Game 3, with 21 of them coming in the first quarter.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers rarely calls out a player. Probably the harshest thing Rivers will ever say about anyone is that the certain individual has to play better. And that is exactly what Rivers said about Pierce after the Game 3 debacle.
"He's got to get more involved,'' Rivers said of Pierce. "He's got to play better. And defensively, as a group, we got to help him some, and then he's got to get into LeBron more. So it's a combination."
Pierce himself didn't quite see it that way. He acknowledged the obvious -- he needs to shoot the ball better -- but he also refused to look at his game through an individual prism. He did note, correctly, that he didn't play well in either game in Cleveland and that the Celtics came away with a split.
One would have to think the same would not hold in Games 3 and 4. He does have to play better.
"It doesn't matter what I do offensively as an individual,'' Pierce said. "I could have scored 30 [Friday night], and we probably would have lost the game the way we played defense. So the focus is not on me to score 20, 30 points.
"Obviously, I've got to shoot the ball better,'' he continued. "Get into my spots and do a better job at that. But it's not about one person. It's nothing I'm worried about. I know that's gonna come as the series goes on. It's just being in the situation. It's not going to bother me at all. I know I can bounce back but I gotta do it within the framework of the team."
Pierce called the Celtics' performance "embarrassing," then reminded one and all that the Celtics are a defensive team, first and foremost.
The problem in Game 3 was that there was no defense from the Celtics, who allowed the Cavs to shoot nearly 60 percent. But the Cavs showed up and defended. James has taken on Pierce and relishes the challenge.
"Paul is one of the best [small forwards] in the league,'' James said. "I try to take the pressure off the other guys. I take pride in my defense. It's hard to stop a guy like Paul because he has so much to his game. You just try to keep him in front of you, not go for his upfakes. He's a good player."
It was all LeBron in Game 3. Not only did he vaporize the Celtics in the first quarter, but he held Pierce without a basket before leaving for his first breather with 6:50 left in the second period. Fifty-one seconds later, Pierce had his first basket, an 18-foot pullup. Seventy-seven seconds after that, Pierce had his second basket, a driving layup. James then returned.
Pierce, who played a team high of 35 minutes, 32 seconds, would make two more baskets in the game -- a 4-foot jump/drive when he was fouled by Shaquille O'Neal and a 3-pointer midway through the third quarter when the Celtics were down by 26.
Pierce is right. It's not about one person. But if the Celtics are to get back into this series, they are going to need more than they are getting from their captain. He has a Herculean challenge at both ends in James. That hasn't fazed him before. He's given almost as well as he's taken. So far in this series, it hasn't really been a fair fight.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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