LeBron James' dominance of the Eastern Conference continues as he clinched his 7th straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance after the Cavaliers completed their sweep of the Toronto Raptors.
Since returning to Cleveland in 2015, the Cavaliers are 32-4 in Eastern conference playoff games with six sweeps. Two of those losses came against the Toronto Raptors in last year's ECF and the other two coming against the Chicago Bulls in the 2015 Eastern conference semis.
During LeBron's four year stint in Miami, the Heat had similar success. From 2011-2014 the Heat had a 48-16 record in the East playoffs with two sweeps. The Boston Celtics pushed them to 7-games in the 2012 ECF and Paul George's Pacers took them 7-games the following year. The competition in the East at this time was a lot tougher than what the Cavaliers are currently facing, but nonetheless both of these records are impressive.
Before LeBron James took control of the Eastern conference, he could not get past a certain individual player/team. Just like Michael Jordan couldn't get past Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics stood in LeBron's way.
In an interview with NBA TV's Ahmad Rashad from 2013, LeBron said he didn't consider Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant his rival since they didn't play head to head a lot, but the same can't be said with Paul Pierce.
"I would say Boston is a rival of mine because I've met them so many times in the postseason. I've been able to advance against them, they've sent me home fishing a few times. So I would say Boston and Paul Pierce would kind of be that guy, if I had to name just one guy."
James and Pierce faced each other five times in the playoffs. Pierce sent James' Cavaliers packing in 2008 and in 2010, which was LeBron's final game before joining Miami. When he arrived in South Beach the rivalry changed as LeBron got the best of Pierce as they eliminated his Celtics in 2011 and in the thrilling 2012 Eastern Conference Finals series. The fifth and final time these two met was in the 2014 postseason when Paul Pierce was a member of the Brooklyn Nets with fellow 2008 NBA champion Kevin Garnett.
2008 East Semis Game 7
The first playoff meeting between James and Pierce was in 2008, the year after LeBron carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. The series ended in a classic Game 7 at the TD Garden where LeBron dropped 45 points and Pierce finished with 41:
ESPN's recap article of this game started with this: "Paul Pierce hit a shot. Then LeBron James answered. Pierce hit another and so did James. It was like that all game long, two of the NBA's best trying to carry their teams to the next round."
“He [LeBron] is one of the best at his position and I’ve been considered one of the best at my position,” Pierce said. “It’s been a very competitive battle.” Quote via ESPN
2010 East Semis Game 6
Round 2 between James and Pierce took place in the 2010 Eastern conference semis. This was a polarizing series as LeBron's contract with Cleveland ended after the season and this was viewed as a must-win series for the Cavaliers.
Cleveland dominated the regular season by winning 61 games, but the monkey of the Boston Celtics was still on LeBron's back. Despite winning over 60 games many questioned whether they could beat the fourth-seeded Celtics in a 7-game series.
The two teams split the first four games of the series forcing a pivotal Game 5 at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland was still in a good position, all they had to do was win their home games and they would win the series.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers that was easier said than done. LeBron James had arguably the worst game of his career as he only scored 15 points on 3-14 shooting as the Cleveland lost in blowout fashion to Boston 120 to 88.
That set the stage for a must-win Game 6. Free agent rumors were already swirling for LeBron and another early playoff exit would force him to test the market and potentially leave. We all know what happened as Paul Pierce and the Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers for the second time in three years. Here are the highlights from that Game 6, which ended up being LeBron's last game with Cleveland before taking his talents to South Beach:
Unlike their classic Game 7 battle in 2008, neither James or Pierce had a great Game 6 to close out the 2010 series. LeBron finished with a great stat-line of 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists but with that he turned the ball over 9 times and shot 38% from the floor. Paul Pierce scored 13 points but it was Rajon Rondo who carried the Celtics with 21 points, 12 assists, and 5 steals.
LeBron James had an interesting response after the game. He basically acknowledged that sometimes the best way to learn how to win is to go through painful, heartbreaking losses:
"A friend of mine told me, 'I guess you've got to go through a lot of nightmares before you realize your dream.' That's what's going on for me individually right now."
"I want to win. That's my only thing, my only concern," James said. "I've always prided myself -- it's all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to doing that. But at the same time, I've given myself options to this point. Me and my team, we have a game plan that we'll execute and we'll see where we're at." Quote via ESPN
We all know what LeBron eventually decided to do. He loved Cleveland, but winning was his number one priority. He knew the Boston Celtics weren't going anywhere, and he needed some help. That's when the Big 3 came together in Miami.
The Decision not only made the Miami Heat the most polarizing team in the league, but the most hated. LeBron was the villain of the NBA whether he liked it or not. While being the villain, he was also the most criticized player in all of sports.
The common criticism of not only LeBron James, but the entire 2011 Miami Heat was that they couldn't close out games. They underachieved in the regular season and finished as the 2-seed in the East. And of course....Paul Pierce and the Celtics were waiting for them as the 3-seed.
Miami was the favorite to win this series, but that didn't take any of the pressure off LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. You can only imagine what the headlines would've been if the Celtics once again beat LeBron after joining Wade.
2011 East Semis Game 5
Going into Game 5 the Miami Heat held a 3-1 series lead, but the game was tied at 87 with a little over two minutes left in the 4th quarter. The opportunity to close out the Celtics was there, LeBron just needed to out-duel Pierce for the next two minutes. And that's exactly what he did:
LeBron ended the game with a personal 10-0 run and hit two 3-pointers in Paul Pierce's face. It was only the second round of the Eastern conference playoffs, but this win meant a lot more for James and the rest of the Miami Heat:
"Everything went through my mind at that point," James said. "Finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer, with 'The Decision' and deciding to come down here to be a part of this team ... because I knew how important team is to this sport ... and all the backlash I got from it. Quote via ESPN
2012 Eastern Conference Finals Game 6
This wasn't the end of LeBron vs Pierce. The following year, after the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, the Celtics had the Heat on the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was Game 6 of the 2012 ECF, the game that was going to change LeBron's career one way or another. If he lost, it would be another example of him choking in a must-win game. But a win would help change the narrative and keep Miami's season alive.
Not only did LeBron win that game, he dominated it from start to finish. He had a look in his eye from the opening tip that he wasn't going to let his team lose, and he responded with perhaps the best game of his career:
Bill Simmons had a great reaction after this game. If you know anything about Bill, he is a huge Boston sports fan/writer and of course he was in attendance for this game. In an article for The Grantland, here's his perspective on the importance of that Game 6 battle between LeBron and the Celtics:
"You can’t imagine what this was like to witness in person. I know Michael Jordan had similarly astonishing games, and others, too, but not with stakes like that. This wasn’t just an elimination game. This was LeBron James’s entire career being put on trial … and it only took an hour for him to tell the jury, “Go home. I’m one of the best players ever. Stop picking me apart. Stop talking about the things I can’t do. Stop holding me to standards that have never been applied to any other NBA player. Stop blaming me for an admittedly dumb decision I never should have made. Stop saying I’m weak. Stop saying that I don’t want to win. Stop. Just … stop.”
The Miami Heat would go on to win Game 7 and later defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. That Eastern Conference Finals series ended up being the last great James vs Pierce duel. They faced each other again in 2014 when Pierce was on the Nets, but Brooklyn was an inferior team to Miami that year so it really wasn't the same.
Last week Paul Pierce's career officially came to an end when the Los Angeles Clippers were eliminated by the Utah Jazz in the first round. With Pierce's career coming to a close, it gave LeBron James an opportunity to reflect on Pierce. When asked, LeBron simply said that Paul Pierce's next stop "is the Hall of Fame," and he should be first ballot.
Paul Pierce elaborated more on his rivalry with LeBron James:
“I think a lot of it is really misunderstood,” Pierce said. “If I see LeBron walking down the street, it’s not going to be no fistfight. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. It’s like fighting for the same girl. How am I going to be cool with that guy? I’ve got total respect for him as a person. It’s just the thing we go through on the court…It’s just the competitive nature of both of us being at the same position, being on the top teams, gunning for the same trophy year in and year out, and that’s where that comes into play. It’s just something about great players when they play in certain arenas or against other great players. They elevate their play. LeBron is one of those guys." Quote via Boston.com
Paul Pierce even came out and said that he was happy LeBron and the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Finals. Mainly because of his hatred for the Warriors. Why does he hate Golden State? He has one big reason:
“I respect LeBron. People think we have a hate for each other, but I totally respect what he’s done,” he said. “[But last season] was the first time I was happy he won [an NBA championship]—the first time. [I didn’t like] the other times. I just didn’t want Golden State to win last year, because I was just tired of hearing about the 73 wins. 'They gonna be better than the [1995-96] Bulls.' And I think the Bulls team that won 71 games was the greatest team of all time. And I didn’t want that team to be in that conversation.” Quote via FOX Sports
At the end of the day, LeBron James has a lot of great individual rivals. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard are some guys he competes with now, but none of them have the playoff history between each other like James and Pierce do.
If Golden State and Cleveland continue to play each other in the Finals, then Stephen Curry could creep into the conversation. But for now, no opponent has impacted LeBron's career quite like Paul Pierce.
My only question is this: Will Paul Pierce root for LeBron again this year assuming the Finals is in fact Golden State vs Cleveland?