When we talk matchups, the Paul Pierce/LeBron James slugfest rarely gets mentioned, and it’s odd. The two have matched up in four of the past five postseasons, and given they are playing the same position with very similar roles on their respective teams, you’d think the NBA fanbase would take better notice. Instead, we’re asking for Kobe vs. LeBron in the Finals or checking the calendar for when Deron Williams and Chris Paul match up again.
Yet the best one-on-one battles happen in the playoffs, and these two small forwards have shed enough blood against each other to make a movie.
But in Game 1 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Truth shot 5-for-18 and was nonexistent for most of the night. He played better in the second game (21 points), but ultimately fouled out before he could inflict any memorable damage on Miami and James. LeBron has been a monster, and dropped 32 and 13 in Game 1.
Boston is down 2-0, and it doesn’t take a genius to know they better win both games at home. Rajon Rondo won’t be scoring 44 points again any time soon, so it’s going to fall on Pierce’s head. He HAS to outplay LeBron for long stretches in New England, or else this series will be over before we get a defining moment.
But if anyone is able and willing to rise to the occasion against the toughest matchup in the league, it’s Pierce. He’s done it over and over again in the playoffs for the Celtics. With that, here are the top five best playoff performances of his career.
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5. 2008 NBA Finals, Game 5 at L.A. Lakers
Celtics lose 103-98
Pierce: 38 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists
Boston might’ve lost this game, but you wouldn’t have known it looking at Pierce. This was probably the weirdest Finals game I’ve ever seen. No one really wanted to win. Down 3-1, the Lakers knew it was over, and played in somewhat of a trance after the first quarter. And the Celtics knew they were going home for Games 6 and 7. Outside of Pierce absolutely destroying Kobe, Luke Walton, Vlad Ramanovic and everyone else in white, it was a relatively boring night.
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4. 2012 First Round, Game 2 at Atlanta
Celtics win 87-80
Pierce: 36 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists
No Rajon Rondo. No Ray Allen. Down 1-0 on the road, Boston should’ve lost this game. Too bad Pierce started almost right from the tip, scoring within mere seconds from the opening jump, and never letting up. “I have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence from being in those moments,” Pierce said afterwards. “You believe in yourself, your coach believes in you, your team believes in you, it’s a combination of all those things.” He capped it all off by Tebow-ing at center court.
3. 2002 Conference Finals, Game 3 vs. New Jersey
Celtics win 94-90
Pierce: 28 points, 19 in the fourth quarter
The Truth has had higher scoring games in the playoffs – take for instance the 40 he dropped on Indiana (plus 21-for-21 from the line) in Game 1 of the 2003 Playoffs – but none of them will be remembered quite like this game will be. Boston came home tied at a game a piece with New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals, but found themselves down 21 points before Pierce exploded. It took a tongue lashing from Antoine Walker, but in crunch time, Pierce lit the crowd on fire by continuously driving to the basket – over and over again – on his way to 19 points in the fourth quarter of one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history. I wasn’t even a Celtic fan, but living in Boston at the time, I felt like one after this.
2. 2002 First Round, Game 5 vs. Philadelphia
Celtics win 120-87
Pierce: 46 points, 8-for-10 from deep
Everything came together in this one for the Truth. It was his first playoff series. It was a do-or-die Game 5. The 76ers had come from down 2-0 to win the next two in Philly. Allen Iverson was at the height of his popularity, having come off a trip to the Finals and a MVP. I was a big Sixer fan at the time, and still remember watching this game at a friend’s house, doing whatever I could to get luck on my side. My attempts were futile. Pierce literally couldn’t miss, scoring 29 of his 46 in the first half, and it was a colossal blowout from the start. Philly never had a chance, and I could only sit on a couch, miserable. For me, this was Pierce’s coming out party. Iverson was considered one of the two or three best players in the league at the time, and the Celtics – behind the Truth – had taken him out in the first round. For me, that meant something.