WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — LeBron James soared for dunks and stepped back for long jumpers, sending an immediate message to the Boston Celtics that he could not be guarded.
On the other end, Paul Pierce matched him shot for shot.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, that was two years ago.
It’s been a one-sided matchup at small forward this time, a big reason the Cleveland Cavaliers have a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Game 4 is Sunday, and the Celtics know that if James can’t be stopped, then Pierce must get started.
“We just need Paul to be aggressive,” forward Kevin Garnett said Saturday. “On both ends. Period.”
James and Pierce engaged in a thrilling duel in this round in 2008, with James scoring 45 points and Pierce answering with 41 to help the Celtics pull out a 97-92 Game 7 victory. Boston went on to win the NBA championship and the aging team still believes it has one last run.
That’s hard to imagine if Pierce doesn’t pick up his play. The All-Star forward is shooting just 31 percent from the field in the series, has made only 4 of 16 3-point attempts and is averaging 12.7 points.
“Obviously we do want to get him involved more, he has to get his rhythm better,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after practice.
After struggling in Game 2, when his sore right elbow looked worse than perhaps it is, James resumed overpowering the Celtics the way he usually does Friday night. He scored 21 of his 38 points in the first quarter, helping the Cavs put it away early in their 124-95 victory, Boston’s worst home loss ever in the playoffs.
Besides his offensive dominance — he is the career leader in scoring average against the Celtics — James is an All-Defensive team selection who is making things tough for Pierce. And Boston is helping by not doing enough to get its leading scorer in the flow.
“They really haven’t gone to Pierce a lot, which is OK with us,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “Pierce is a great player and the only thing we hope we can do when he catches is try to make him work.
“We haven’t quote-unquote shut him down, but ‘Bron’s done a nice job of trying to stay in front and not give him any angles and contest and just try to make it as tough on him as he can. And Paul’s missed a couple of shots and hopefully he will continue.”
Neither James nor Pierce spoke to the media Saturday.
The matchup was never more lopsided than in the pivotal first quarter Friday, when James shot 8 of 10 while outscoring the Celtics by himself. Meanwhile, Pierce missed all five attempts on his way to a 4-of-15 night.
Pierce dismissed his offensive woes after Game 3, noting he didn’t score much in either of the games in Cleveland and the Celtics managed to split them. Boston could try to force him the ball more to get him going and make James work on defense, but that could disrupt the Celtics’ ball movement.
“I feel like it’s not one guy. One guy’s not going to figure this out, and when we’ve been successful we’ve relied on each other,” said guard Ray Allen, who also struggled in Game 3. “Yeah, Paul has to be more aggressive, Paul does have to attack starting out games and when he does that, we do play well.”
Rivers acknowledged that having to defend James is likely taking something out of Pierce’s offense. Watching the league’s MVP hit his jumpers has to be demoralizing for any defender, because James is almost unguardable when they are falling.
“It’s not fun when you’re doing things the right way and the shots are still going in,” Cavs guard Anthony Parker said. “And Paul is such a big part of their offense that I don’t know how that affects him on the offensive end.”
Far more alarming to Rivers than Pierce’s struggles was his team’s defensive effort Friday. If the Celtics can’t control James, a career 30.9 points-per-game scorer in the regular season against Boston, it becomes even harder to keep his supporting cast in check.
When James was passive in Game 2, Cleveland put only two other players in double figures in its blowout loss. With James aggressive from the start Friday, five teammates hit double figures and the Cavs shot 59.5 percent.
“He has a cape, there’s no doubt about that. And a lot of guys played through his cape, but that’s with every great player,” Rivers said. “You can’t name a great player, especially the Kobes and the LeBrons of the world. When they get it going, they make you feel pretty much like Hercules as well, and that’s what he does. That’s what he should do.”