LeBron James and Paul Pierce are once again going toe to toe on the front lines of a hard-fought battle, with the war culminating with a decisive Game 7 showdown.
Our first taste of such came during the Celtics' 2008 championship run, when James was still a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Four years later, James has a new jersey, Pierce's skills have somewhat diminished, and the Game 7 venue has changed. But still, the importance of the 1-on-1 matchup reigns supreme.
On Thursday, James got the better of Pierce by a wide margin — largely the reason the Heat controlled the game from start to finish. While James scored 30 first-half points en route to a 45-point, 15-rebound clinic, Pierce shot a dismal 4 of 18 from the field (including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc) and recorded just nine points.
It's as lopsided a matchup as we've ever seen between the two, and it came under pressure — a time in which Pierce has generally shown a higher aptitude. That makes the poor performance even more alarming.
What's most alarming, though, is that the Celtics captain looked fatigued and never really got his legs under him in Game 6, marking the second straight game he's been completely overmatched. (Pierce shot just 6 of 19 in Tuesday's Game 5 win.) But as dominating as James was, and as rocky as Pierce's play has been this series, there's still the potential for the wily veteran to come up big when it counts. And it counts more than ever on Saturday.
"He'll bounce back," head coach Doc Rivers said of Pierce after Thursday's loss. "Paul is a big-game player. Game 7s are the biggest that you can possibly have. What I saw tonight was I thought he was ready for the game. He just didn't have a great game tonight. We don't look into it much more than that; at least I don't."
But how much stock should Celtics fans put into Pierce's woes?
The forward's flair for the dramatic is obviously still there, as evidenced by his game-sealing 3 in James' face in Game 5. That bucket overshadowed Pierce's struggles, and a game-changing basket in Game 7 could do the same. But the 14-year veteran will need to put forth a complete effort on Saturday to ensure this version of the Pierce-LeBron saga ends in Boston's favor. An inefficient 31 minutes — like he turned in Thursday — won't do the trick.
It's unlikely we'll see Pierce drop 41 on LeBron the way he did when the two hooked up back in 2008, but a vintage Pierce will need to show up in order for the Celtics to book their flight to Oklahoma City. Whether that means limiting James' production, shooting more efficiently or getting himself to the charity stripe with higher frequency, Pierce could be the deciding factor.
Rajon Rondo has proven that he's the team's motor, and Kevin Garnett has been arguably the team's best player this series, but Pierce is still the captain of the ship. It's only fitting that he's once again matched up with the best basketball player in the world in a winner-take-all showdown.
This time around, it's obvious who holds the overwhelming edge in the LeBron-Pierce rivalry, at least in terms of talent. If the Celtics have shown us anything thus far, though, it's that talent isn't always the most important ingredient in success.
A lot has changed since 2008. We'll see just how much on Saturday.