Pierce beats LeBron in a classic

James scores more in a Game 7 shootout, but the Celtics star buries the Cavaliers as Boston advances to meet the Pistons.


King Kaufman
May 19, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)

Defense might win championships, but it's offense that gets the headlines.

Anybody talking about Sunday's Game 7 win by the Boston Celtics over the Cleveland Cavaliers next week, next month or 20 years from now will be talking about Paul Pierce scoring 41 points for the winners and LeBron James scoring 45 for the losers.

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That's a lot of points. Who was guarding those guys, anyway?

Well, various guys pulled the duty. There was a lot of James Posey on LeBron and the Celtics played some zone, but for long stretches, especially in the second half, it was James guarding Pierce and Pierce guarding James.

And back and forth they went, Pierce knocking in his midrange jumpers, James alternately driving and hitting from long range. It was a spectacular display and there probably isn't a defender on earth who could have done much against either man on this night. And that's why defense doesn't win championships. Defenses sometimes run into great players having unstoppable nights.

Pierce is a very good defender, better than James, who's good at just about everything because he's such a phenomenal athlete, but who sometimes relies on that athleticism too much on defense. He'll gamble and reach and run under screens when he'd be better served playing straight up.

But because he's so ridiculous, it sometimes works, as on the fourth-quarter steal from Pierce that led to his highlight-reel dunk, one of those breathtaking plays that remind you that James isn't ruled by the same physical laws everyone else is.

That only evened the one-on-one defensive score, though. Pierce had picked James' pocket on the Cavaliers' first possession of the game, anticipating a pass perfectly and intercepting it right out of James' hands, though he missed the ensuing layup, thanks in part to a nice defensive play by Wally Szczerbiak. Wally "Defense Wins Championships" Szczerbiak, that is.

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Offense doesn't win championships either. It was James who outscored Pierce, after all. Here's another thing that doesn't win championships: That one guy. That's why LeBron and the Cavaliers are finished for the season. Not enough help for the one big guy. Zydrunas Ilgauskas doesn't quite qualify for membership in a Big Two with James.

The Celtics have their Big Three, who are more like a Big Two with the playoff disappearance of Ray Allen. They also have a deeper, better supporting cast, something that doesn't appear to be true in the upcoming Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. But the Pistons don't have a LeBron James, who came about as close as it's possible to come to single-handedly getting his team to the NBA semifinals.

Fellow Big Two-er Kevin Garnett said after the game that Pierce single-handedly won this game for the Celtics. "Tonight was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce, get the hell out the way," he said at the post-game press conference. "Ain't no need for y'all to ask me no questions. That was the game plan, that's what we did."

And while Garnett was solid -- 13 points, 13 rebounds -- and P.J. Brown turned in a yeoman's game that included a huge jumper with 1:21 left that restored the shrinking Boston lead to three, his assessment wasn't far off.

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Pierce hit the Celtics' first two shots, along with that interception, and then, four and a half minutes into the quarter, hit a 3-pointer off a quick pass from Rajon Rondo that capped an 8-0 run, gave Boston a 12-4 lead, sent an already frenzied crowd into overdrive as Cleveland called timeout, and served notice that if the Celtics were going to win, there was going to be a quote something like Garnett's at the press conference.

That 8-0 run became 12-0 before James ended it. He didn't get off to Pierce's blazing start, but it didn't take long for the Cavs to devolve to get the ball to LeBron James, get the hell out the way. By the fourth quarter James was taking more than half of his team's shots. Down the stretch, with the game on the line, he took eight out of 10.

But it was on a loose-ball play that Pierce won his biggest head-to-head victory. With exactly a minute to go Ilgauskas and Posey had a jump ball on a tie-up off the rebound of a missed Cavs shot.

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Pierce and James lined up next to each other and Pierce overcame all of James' physical advantages by simply getting off the mark quicker, jumping in front of James and getting his hand on the ball. Pierce chased the ball down and -- awful rule alert -- was able to call timeout while lying on his back and under siege by Cavalier defenders. It wasn't a decisive play, but it denied Cleveland what would have amounted to a key offensive rebound. And it was a defining play.

In the waning seconds the Cavaliers were down by five after Pierce had made a pair of free throws, the first clanging off the back rim, bouncing high in the air and then -- after a little nudge from the ghost of Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, Pierce said -- dropping through the net.

James launched a three with about seven seconds left. It missed but Joe Smith got the rebound and quickly passed the ball out to -- who else? -- James. It was now too late for any shot by James to mean anything, but Eddie House of the Celtics leapt and intercepted the pass anyway.

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Almost before the smallest man on the floor landed, James turned on his heel and began walking quickly toward the bench, his fifth NBA season and third playoffs over. His offense was good enough to beat a great defense, and that wasn't good enough.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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