On Sunday, in an 85-82 win over Miami, Paul Pierce didn’t make a field goal. Zero hits in ten tries against LeBron James and the Heat. This might have seemed like a shocking result for a nine-time All-Star.
It was merely the low point in a longtime struggle against one of the game’s best perimeter defenders. (In Pierce’s defense, he was coming off of a bout with the flu, had a sprained wrist and left foot injury.)
In their last meeting of the 2006 season, Pierce scored 50 points against James and the Cavs. That was back when LeBron wasn’t a great defender. Since then, they’ve met 28 times in the regular season and playoffs. Pierce’s numbers per 36 minutes in those games compared with his regular season averages since 2007:
Besides the massive drop in shooting, Pierce earns fewer trips to the line and his rebounding declines as well. The result is a somewhat horrific four-year stretch against James in which Paul has averaged 16.6 points per 36 minutes on 50.5% True Shooting.
James has played on plenty of good defensive teams, so it’s not a solo effort by any stretch. Nor does he guard Pierce on every possession the Truth is in the game. But by cursory measures, Pierce struggles against LeBron more than anyone in the league. His second worst career FG% against a team, after Cleveland, is 41.7% against Minnesota.
This was never more apparent than in their 2008 series, in which Pierce was aggressive with LeBron on the bench and nearly invisible with James on the court. In the first six games, Pierce averaged 15.8 points per game on 47.7% TS. Some of his decline can be attributed to exerting so much effort guarding LeBron — something he does well — but LeBron clearly defends Pierce well too, using his size and strength to eliminate Pierce’s advantage over other wing defenders.
The Celtics finally unleashed Pierce in game 7 of that series by using a lot of screen and roll action into LeBron. Something to keep in mind with a probable playoff battle looming again this May.