Pierce knows he'll be tested by LeBron
WALTHAM, Mass. -- In the aftermath of Boston's 2007-08 championship season, the Celtics held a championship DVD viewing party at the Legends club inside the TD Garden. While most players mingled, captain Paul Pierce sat at the bar, a glass of vino nearby, and shook his head watching highlights from Boston's second-round triumph over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Man, LeBron is a beast," Pierce sighed to no one in particular, while watching another slow-motion sequence in which James and Pierce drew cringeworthy contact, sweat droplets scattering in every direction with every car-crash type collision.
Pierce is one of the few that have found a way to tame the LeBeast, Boston providing a roadblock for James' championship aspirations in two of the past three postseasons.
Ever since James took his talents to South Beach, there's been anticipation for the next playoff sequel. And while James is now surrounded by his most talented supporting cast, the Celtics-Heat matchup in this year's Eastern Conference semifinal series that starts Sunday in Miami (ABC, 3:30 p.m.) might ultimately boil down to the one-on-one battle between him and Pierce.
And history suggests Pierce saves his most inspired defensive performances for this matchup.
"He has no choice, really," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When you're playing against a [Dwyane] Wade, LeBron or [Chris] Bosh, if you don't up your game and your defensive intensity, it's not going to go well for you.
"Paul's a big guy, he's not a guy you're going to push around and bully. LeBron's a big guy and he's used to doing that to people."
Let's start by throwing out the past. James is in a new situation in Miami with more offensive threats around him. Has Pierce been able to have the same impact on James this season?
According to some tireless game review by ESPN Stats and Info's Peter Newmann, Pierce defended James 69 percent of the time during the 277 offensive possessions that Miami ran out of a halfcourt set during the teams' four regular-season meetings. During that span, with Pierce defending James, Miami as a team averaged a mere 81 points per 100 possessions while shooting 42 percent from the floor. With James defended by all other players, Miami averaged 102 points per 100 possessions and shot 52 percent overall.
Zoom in closer on James during those same situations and you'll see he averaged a mere 75 points per 100 possessions while shooting 43 percent when guarded solely by Pierce. Against all other defenders, that number jumps to 93 points per 100 possessions behind 50 percent shooting overall.
What else does the season data tell us? Well, the Celtics switched off James on only 3.6 percent of plays this season (as Rivers noted Thursday, "We try not to [switch]. They run some stuff that, honestly, it's difficult to not switch, but we really try to avoid switching as much as possible"), but Boston did utilize a help defender nearly 30 percent of the time (most often with a big man like Kevin Garnett).
James averaged 73 points per 100 possessions when Boston helped, compared to 86 points per 100 possessions in single coverage. But as Newmann and colleague Dean Oliver (former numbers man for the Denver Nuggets) point out, that's a bit misleading because James does such a good job setting up his teammates when Boston commits help. Miami, as a team, averaged 92 points per 100 possessions when Boston helped as opposed to 86 points per 100 possessions when James was handled by a single defender.
All of which suggests that Boston's best chance for success lies with Pierce playing James straight up and his teammates resisting the urge to help.
"We tend to do that, honestly, and every time we do [over-help], we either get lucky and don't get hurt by it, or we get crushed by it," Rivers said. "I know it's tough for help defenders when they see Wade in [isolation] -- or LeBron -- to not to go support, but they're going to shoot it anyway. A little support is not going to help. Then you're off the body, so you're getting hurt [by shooters and on the defensive glass], so we can't fall into that trap.
"We help a lot, but we don't over-help. Every time we've over-helped in any series, including in the New York series, we tend to hurt ourselves more than just playing our solid one-on-one defense with support."
Against the Knicks in the conference quarterfinals, Pierce sharpened his claws against another offensive-minded wing in Carmelo Anthony. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Anthony was just 13-of-43 (30.2 percent) while defended by Pierce, compared to 20 of 45 (44.4 percent) against other defenders.
"It doesn't get any easier at my position," said Pierce. "It seems like every round there's going to be somebody that's a great player at that position. Playing against [Anthony] and all the things he does offensively just prepares you for playing against a guy like LeBron. You've got guys who you've got to be aware of pretty much all over the court. [James is] really a big part of what they do as a team, focal point, and I'm going to be asked to guard him. So [it's] another challenge for me."
Now, don't misinterpret. It's not as if Pierce is some sort of lockdown defender that can take James out of the series. That person doesn't exist. In past series, James has gotten his points, but Pierce's efforts certainly aided Boston's ability to end his season.
James erupted for 35 points in a Game 1 win during last year's conference semifinals and had 38 points in Cleveland's Game 3 triumph as the Cavaliers took a 2-1 series lead. But take away those games and James was 25-of-68 shooting (36.8 percent), while averaging a modest 22 points per game. He only connected on 2-of-17 3-pointers (11.8 percent) during that span and his turnovers skyrocketed (three turnovers in the two wins; 24 in four losses). By the end of the series, he appeared to have mentally checked out.
Dial it back to 2008, when James started the Boston series 8-of-42 (19 percent) missing his first 10 3-pointers as Boston won Games 1 and 2 to take control. He came on strong later, but it's noteworthy that even his two biggest offensive efforts of that series -- 35 points in Game 5 and 45 points in Game 7 -- resulted in losses. Pierce scored 29 and 41, respectively, in those games, showing that when his defense faltered, he was still capable of getting into an old-fashioned shootout with James.
One way or another, Pierce has found a way to prevent James from taking over a series. Asked Thursday if he expects James' best because of his struggles against Boston, Pierce agreed with the suggestion.
"Probably so at this point," said Pierce. "When you lose to a team [two] times in the playoffs -- I mean, it would be personal for me. I'm sure he's going to take it personal and you've got to expect his best."
Just like Pierce takes it personal while guarding James, and you can expect his best as well.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. ESPN Stats and Info's Peter Newmann and Dean Oliver contributed to this.