One month after the Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in June 2008 to claim their 17th NBA title, members of the Celtics huddled in TD Garden to view a DVD celebrating their championship season.
The footage playing on the TVs in the arena’s Legends bar was merely background noise for most players as they mingled with invited guests. In a quiet moment away from the masses, Celtics captain Paul Pierce watched intently as slow-motion highlights of his duel with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference semifinals played on a monitor.
Pierce marveled at the physicality and acknowledged the difficulty of stopping James. The Pierce-James rivalry was reaching full bloom, with a proper balance of mutual respect and an acknowledgment that both players were chasing the same prize.
On Feb. 11, the Celtics will retire Pierce’s No. 34 after a Sunday showdown with James and the Cavaliers. That Boston chose this particular opponent is not likely a coincidence.
Much like a decade ago, the Celtics and Cavaliers find themselves battling for East supremacy. Pierce, who signed a one-day contract with Boston this summer in order to retire with the team, would love nothing more than for the Celtics to open his retirement celebration by topping a chief rival.
Pierce’s No. 34 will be the 22nd number retired by the Celtics, and the first since Cedric Maxwell’s No. 31 went to the rafters in 2003.
While we wait for Pierce’s big night, here’s a look back at some of his most memorable games against the Cavaliers, starting with perhaps the most epic battle with James:
May 18, 2008 — Game 7, East semifinals: No team provided as much resistance during Boston’s title run as the Cavaliers. During the deciding Game 7, James went off for 45 points but Pierce responded with 41. That included an absurd game-sealing, back-rim bouncing free throw with 7.9 seconds remaining that Pierce attributed to the “ghost of Red [Auerbach].” Said James after the series, “I love going against the best, and Paul Pierce is one of those guys.”
Dec. 13, 2003: In only the second regular-season meeting between Pierce and James, the Cavaliers rookie produced his then-season-high, 37 points. Pierce, with five seasons and two All-Star appearances on his NBA resume, countered with 41 points in Boston’s 105-98 triumph. More noteworthy: Pierce got into a trash-talking war with Otis Carter, the father of longtime LeBron friend Maverick Carter. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote in 2012, “[Pierce] told James late in the game he needed to tell Carter to be quiet or he’d go for 50 points.”
Feb. 16, 2006: On a night when Pierce produced the Celtics’ first 50-point game in more than 16 years, James spoiled the moment with a loud triple-double (43 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) as the Cavaliers stole a 113-109 double-overtime win at TD Garden. The rest of Boston’s starting five was: Ryan Gomes, Raef LaFrentz, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. No other Boston player had more than 17 points, and the Celtics’ bench chipped in just seven points overall, highlighting just how much of a load Pierce had to shoulder in the pre-Big Three era.
Dec. 19, 2012: Pierce, then 35, became the oldest player in Celtics history to score 40 points in a regulation game, producing one of the most efficient games of his career months after James took his talents to South Beach. Pierce scored his 40 points on 13-of-16 shooting in just 34 minutes. He added eight rebounds, five assists and three steals while finishing plus-29 in a 103-91 triumph. After his big game, Pierce said, “Maybe I can play a little bit longer than anticipated, who knows?” The Celtics traded him (and others) to the Nets in a blockbuster deal in June 2013, and Pierce played four more NBA seasons.
May 13, 2010 — Game 6, East semifinals: While Pierce will long be remembered for his scoring exploits, during Boston’s march to the 2010 NBA Finals, it might have been his defense that helped the Celtics top the Cavaliers in the East semifinals. Boston’s series victory might have also contributed to James bolting from Cleveland and forming his own title-chasing trio in Miami. In the deciding Game 6, James scored 27 points as part of a triple-double that included 19 rebounds and 10 assists. Still, James shot just 8-of-21 and finished minus-5 in plus/minus over 46 minutes. Pierce had a quiet 13 points but was plus-18 in 29 minutes as the Celtics advanced.