When people talk about the history between the Cavaliers and Celtics, it usually relies upon the modern rivalry between the team’s two star players. Over the course of the last seven seasons, Cleveland and Boston have played dozens of incredibly entertaining games. As many will argue, the teams lack a rich history of bitter playoff battles, but there is no doubt it’s been a battle over most of the last decade.
Tonight’s match up in game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals will be the 30th all-time contest in the regular season or post-season between LeBron James and Paul Pierce. The rivalry between these two players is well-documented and has changed quite a bit since LeBron entered the league in 2003-2004. Through pre-season fights and post-season showdowns, it is possible that Pierce is LeBron’s “truest” rival in the NBA. Over the past two years however, the momentum has definitely changed in favor of the Cavaliers.
James entered the league as a very similar player to Pierce. Both players were elite scoring small forwards on mediocre teams saddled near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. In Pierce’s first nine seasons with Boston leading up to 2007-2008, the team made the playoffs only four times and were above .500 just three. Meanwhile, James joined a team that won just 17 games in 2002-2003 and struggled to make the next step for the next couple of seasons.
By 2005-2006, the two both ranked in the top six in points per game in the league. LeBron’s team made the playoffs that season as a rising power in the East while Pierce’s team continued to struggle at the bottom of the conference. The rivalry between the two players continued to grow with a fever as LeBron averaged 38.3 and Pierce averaged 32.6 in their three contests against each other that season.
It took until 2007-2008 for the Celtics to over-take the Cavs with a series of off-season trades. That May, the two players met in the post-season for the first time ever and added an even better chapter to their competition. The home teams won the first six games of the series (a common trend in this rivalry), bringing the battle back to a deciding game seven in Boston. LeBron scored 45 points on 29 shots to lead Cleveland but Pierce’s more efficient 41 helped Boston advance to an NBA title.
Take a look at the stats in their 21 head-to-head battles including the 2008 playoffs (DISCLAIMER: all stats used in this article are only in games where James and Pierce both played. That is why calculating James’s scoring average or statistics against simply Boston will not match the below):
Ever since then, the scenery has changed significantly for both teams. Cleveland has revamped their roster to add new playoff rotation players in Mo Williams, Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Boston has made slight changes here and there, but their starting five remains the exact same rom their title two seasons ago. The Cavs were the top team in the NBA regular season both years since Boston’s championship, but have yet to make the next step in the playoff atmosphere.
Over the course of the 29 battles between the two players, only five times has the road team won the contest. Since March 2006, that number is 19/20 for the home team in this rivalry. Pierce won the first six scoring battles in their early match ups, as well as seven of the first nine, but now LeBron has simply dominated the show. Over the past 23 games between the two players, he has scored more points, collected more assists and grabbed more rebounds all together on 12 different occasions.
Here we are now in game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a potential changing of the guard in this head-to-head rivalry and possibly more. For the past three years, Paul Pierce guided the Celtics as the best player on the most recent East team to win the title. The aging Celtics will be desperate to rebuild within the next two or three seasons but are on the verge of losing in the second round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. More importantly, the rivalry between the two players has changed dramatically.
In what once used to be a healthy competition between two evenly matched players, James has simply taken over recently. As evidenced in game one of this series, he has the potential at any given point to put up a casual 35-7-7 line while quietly stopping one of his favorite opponents. Pierce has a non-factor in game one and it will be interesting to see how he fares in game two or even back at home in Boston.
Take a look at the stats in their 8 head-to-head battles since the 2008 playoffs:
LeBron James = 31.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.9 apg and 59.1% true shooting
Paul Pierce = 18.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.6 apg and 50.4% true shooting
The slight advantage in points, rebounds and true shooting used to exist in LeBron’s favor (+5.6 ppg, +0.3 rpg and +1.0% ts). Nowadays, the advantage is almost getting out of hand (+13.0 ppg, +1.9 rpg and +8.7% ts) where it seems that the back-to-back MVP is simply toying with his old rival. Who knows if Pierce will explode for 40+ points, but it is evident that what used to be an even battle is now relatively one-sided.
(Photos by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images and AP Photo/Winslow Townson)