May 18, 2008.
Five years ago. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. LeBron James was 23 years-old, a year removed from an embarrassing Finals sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, and, at the time, believed to be on the cusp of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship. Surely, people thought, the next logical step after losing in the Finals would be to win in the Finals. He just had to take care of one little matter: dispatching the old Celtics so he could fulfill his destiny.
The Celtics had just finished a 67 win season with their new "Big 3," but their playoffs hadn't been going so well. They were struggling too much on the road. They had to go 7 to finish off the Hawks and they were sitting there, at home, in another game 7, against last year's Finalists.
It was an epic matchup. And fans were treated to one of the NBA's all-time duels.
LeBron had 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. Paul Pierce 41, 5, and 4. The Celtics held on for a 97-92 win. And The Truth went on to win his first ring, along with the Finals MVP.
But that's ancient history, especially in sports years. Pierce is pushing 35 now. LeBron is 27. He's in the prime of his life. Paul Pierce has hinted at retirement. His dueling days, I'm afraid to say, may well be done… at least when it comes to dueling someone like LeBron James.
Yet there he was Wednesday, in the 3rd quarter, taking his paces like it was high noon. He shot the ball eight times and went to the line twice more. He dominated the ball like the old Truth, ready to take over where Rajon Rondo left off in the first half.
The problem is, it didn't work.
"We really got away from what we were doing, honestly," said Doc Rivers yesterday. "I thought the first half, our offensive game plan was absolutely wonderful. In the 3rd quarter, we went back to the first game way of playing. The ball stuck, we never got the ball to the other side of the floor, we concentrated on the first option too much."
The first option was Paul Pierce. And he's earned the right to be a first option. He should be the first option. But he shouldn't be the only option.
Pierce as your primary scorer will win you a lot of games. This isn't some kind of Pierce obituary. But the fact is that some combination of age, injury and schedule (I'm not sure how much of each it really is) has conspired to eliminate the Pierce/LeBron duel as a potential story line. For Pierce to "out-gun" James, he's going to have to do it withing the regular flow of the offense.
"You're not going to beat Miami on the strong side," Doc said. "You're not going to beat Miami with isos. you have to have ball movement. And the ball has to touch different hands and then the ball has to change side of the floor."
LeBron has gotten too good. He's got different teammates now. He's got a different mentality now. And Paul Pierce needs to have a different one now too.
The third quarter in Game 2 killed the Celtics. Isolations plays not only kill your offense, they kill your defense. Guys get flat-footed when they watch another guy work in isolation, making it hard to go from just standing there to full speed when the ball is turned over. It's also an energy killer because standing around on offense tends to lead to standing around on defense.
The days of dueling with LeBron are done. At least they need to be. Because if they're not, the Celtics season certainly will be very soon.