How Father Time Defeated The Celtics Rivalry We Deserved


Paul Pierce’s illustrious battles with LeBron James were important in deciding which team would claim dominance in the Eastern Conference, but the rivalry never gave us the crescendo we deserved

Basketball vendettas between iconic players and storied teams are what makes NBA history so rich and exciting. The beauty of this sport is watching an inevitable doomsday collision-course unfold between two of the greatest athletes in the world.

The explosive contests of athleticism, the unrelenting physical combats and the sharpshooting duels make historical basketball rivalries so memorable – but what if the incredible rivalry of this generation was cut short?

Imagine Tupac versus Biggie if the Southside Crips were never involved. Imagine Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier if the “Thrilla in Manila” never took place. Imagine Batman versus Superman in a room laced with kryptonite. Imagine Jay Z versus Nas if “Ether” was never released.

Now think LeBron James, a young man in pursuit of championships to validate his greatness, versus Paul Pierce, the one man on the planet that could stop him, probably.

Picture this – a 25-year old NBA All-Star, vying to be the greatest offensive player in the world  who had developed a new era of success for the Boston Celtics. After years of irrelevancy, Pierce pushed the depleted Celtics to a string of playoff berths. However unsuccessful at the time, he seemed poised to be the next heir to the throne of Celtic legends.

Before LeBron James was an NBA heavyweight with three championship rings and an eternal legacy, he was an 18-year-old prodigy just trying to live up to the hype. From being featured on magazine covers for SLAM and Sports Illustrated, namely headlined ‘The Chosen One’, to his nationally televised high school games on ESPN, the world was watching James’ journey to the NBA. It was 2003 when the ‘kid’ from Akron matched up against the five-year veteran, Paul Pierce for the just second time in his career. As anticipated, what followed was the first step towards the future of the NBA.

After acknowledging a young LeBron James as a threat, Paul Pierce was merciless, utilizing his trademark slow motion drives to the rack and patented jump shot to pour 41 points on James and the Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old proclaimed ‘King’ showed up against the Celtics legend, as his 37 points gave Pierce and Celtics fans a glimpse at the immortal basketball villain that would soon rule the Eastern Conference.

Thus, a new Celtics rivalry was born

The ’05-’06 NBA season saw LeBron James take his Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time in his career. Comparatively, the Boston Celtics fell short of the playoffs for the first time in four years, realising there is an uphill journey ahead for the franchise.

LeBron had begun his reign of terror.

But before this could unfold, the pair locked heads in a fiery match, delivering offensive theatrics like never before. The two-overtime showdown at the TD Garden in Boston not only blessed the fans with insane value for money, but also an instant-classic by two of the sports best. Paul Pierce posted a career high 50 points to go along with seven rebounds and eight assists, warranting praise from the legendary ‘homer’, Tommy Heinson, “we are seeing greatness in action.”

These numbers didn’t make LeBron flinch, though. Needless to say the defense of Wally Szczerbiak and Brian Scalabrine was somewhat illegitimate when matched up with James. As if he intended to take over the entire universe, he smelt blood, blasting the Celtics with his very own triple double – 43 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists.

The 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Celtics and the Cavaliers marks the series that we discovered that Pierce and James were remorseless monsters. The embodiment of real alien-life was shown to the world in game four of the series, where James was guarded by Pierce at the top of the floor. The matchup between the two didn’t last long on this possession, as James shook Pierce with a hesitation and momentarily jumped out of the state of Ohio to slam it on Kevin Garnett. Commentator, Kevin Harlan was not mistaken – he really didn’t have any regard for human life.

The series progressed and the true beauty of basketball competitiveness became apparent as these two superstars gave their all. A hungry LeBron James willed his Cavaliers team to a game seven at Boston against the star-studded Celtics. The dynamic between the two teams was interesting. Boston boasted a ‘big three’, making them a formidable team against the weaker Cleveland Cavaliers. However, heading into game seven, LeBron made it clear that he was the best player on the planet as he put the Celtics on the back foot, almost as if Boston had become the underdogs.

To advance, both teams needed their number one offensive options to fire up, and that’s exactly what they did.

Paul Pierce and LeBron James went mano a mano, in likely their greatest matchup, ever. Demonstrating tough pull-up jump shots, extra-terrestrial dunks and clutch plays, everything was going right for both players. It was as if Pierce and James ran hyper-speed at each other, imploding as they collided headband-first, resulting in an offensive Armageddon. James gave the Cavaliers 45 points in game seven, however Pierce’s 41 points were enough for the Celtics to advance – and eventually win the NBA Finals.

Four years went by before they met for a final showdown, as the pair gave us one last rodeo in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Donning a new jersey, LeBron James was met by a surprisingly competitive Celtics squad. Game one of the series was the beginning of the end, age had finally caught up as Pierce fizzled with just 12 points, while James smothered the C’s, pouring on 32 points. Throughout the series, it was the other Celtics that stepped up, as Rajon Rondo scored 44 points in Game Two and Kevin Garnett had 24 in Game Three.

In an elimination Game Five, Pierce withstood his dwindling play, disregarding the difference in age, athleticism and skill between the two combatants. Pierce may very well be the most underrated clutch player in the history of basketball, and he made sure Miami stood witness to this idea too.

In one of the final great one-on-one moments between the two players, Pierce dribbled the ball, sizing James up with a minute remaining, with the Celtics up one point. Pierce stared down James and stepped into a rhythm three, nailing nothing but net. Despite Pierce’s struggles – just nine points in game six – he had the audacity to take the biggest shot of the season, showing the world that ‘the old guy’ still had that killer instinct.

The conclusion of this series would end up being the curtain call for one of the great Celtics rivalries in the history of the franchise.

The basketball gods residing in hoops heaven work in mysterious ways. There’s a lot to be said about James’ journey through the playoffs in his career. Whether people say that the Eastern Conference is weak, or that he didn’t face ‘real’ competition in the playoffs on many occasions, there is one thing for certain – his basketball rivalries were anaemic at best and it’s not his fault.

For instance, Dwyane Wade, a fellow future hall-of-famer and Eastern Conference mogul, has never faced-off against LeBron James in the NBA playoffs, ever.

Who wouldn’t have wanted to see LeBron take on a fiery Kobe Bryant in an NBA Finals series? Both are iconic legends within the game of basketball, although playing in the Western Conference, the chance for a Finals matchup never quite came around.

More from Hardwood Houdini

Showdown’s against Boston’s own, Paul Pierce, is the closest thing James has had to an organic rivalry in the NBA. We hear it every year when another basketball great bows out of the game – ‘father time is undefeated’.

There is a seven year age difference between LeBron James and Paul Pierce. In a league where the average career lasts just five years and is dominated by pure athleticism, the decline of the older Paul Pierce was bound to take place – ending this great rivalry much too early.

So if they were of a similar age would James still have the same success?

If they both entered their prime together does Pierce take control of the Eastern Conference?

Unfortunately Celtics fans will now have to wait until the next generation of superstars strike up a rivalry to witness another extraordinary showcase of basketball duels.

Next: Expectations for Ben Bentil's Career with Boston Celtics

Paul Pierce will play on next season with the Los Angeles Clippers at age 39. It may his final chance to show LeBron what ‘The Truth’ is all about.