WALTHAM, Mass. — Paul Pierce has never had the opportunity to face LeBron James with both players at the height of their powers. More than seven years James' elder, Pierce was an established star when James was just breaking into the NBA out of Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. Now that James is widely regarded as the top basketball player on the planet, Pierce is still a perennial All-Star but no longer enjoys the youth or athleticism to match James' skills.
Ever since that epic Game 7 in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, though, any meeting between their teams has featured the subhead of "Pierce vs. James." By individual measures, James is undefeated in the first three games of this series, but he and the Heat only lead the Celtics 2-1 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals.
"People can say what they want, but it's not about Paul Pierce versus LeBron," Pierce said Saturday at the Celtics' practice facility. "It's about the Celtics versus the Heat. Individual matchups are one part. He shares more responsibility on his teams over the years than I have since we brought our team together. Even in Cleveland, he had the brunt of the offensive load, where he's going to take a lot more shots than me. If we had to look at it when I was 26 and I had to carry the load, who knows what would have happened?"
James, 27, outscored Pierce, 34, by 44 points in the first three games of the series, but he also attempted 10 more field goals and shot 25 more free throws. James was otherworldly in the first quarter on Friday, scoring 16 points en route to 34 for the game, yet the Celtics led at the end of that quarter and went on to win by 10 points.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemed unconcerned with Pierce's statistical deficiency against the reigning league MVP. Pierce played 124 minutes in the first three games, and all but 17 of those minutes came with James on the court. That made for 107 extremely demanding minutes in an already demanding playoff series.
"Paul has a tough job," Rivers said. "He has to guard a pretty good player, a pretty physical player, and then he has to go score 20 for us as well."
Pierce might never outscore James in any game of this series. That is just not Pierce's game anymore, at least not usually. There is always the possibility Pierce could erupt for 36 points, as he did in Game 2 of the first round in Atlanta, but the point total is far from Pierce's primary concern.
Pierce aims to win the game, not the matchup. He succeeded in that regard Friday and will seek to do the same in Game 4.