While everybody else is weighing the 2017 NBA Finals’ impact on the league’s great G.O.A.T. debate — whether LeBron James could surpass Michael Jordan as the Greatest of All Time — Paul Pierce isn’t even ready to concede that the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar is the best player in the game today.
Following another spectacular Kevin Durant performance in a second straight Golden State Warriors victory to start the Finals, Pierce said on ESPN’s panel, “He may be the best player in the world today.”
He, as in Kevin Durant, not LeBron James.
Jalen Rose somehow sat quietly throughout the segment, but both Chauncey Billups and Michelle Beadle reacted with astonishment — from, “Cut it out Paul,” to wondering what was in Pierce’s drink.
“Hey, this is Truth juice,” said Pierce, picking up his mug.
The recently retired former Boston Celtics star and 2008 Finals MVP added, “We’re on the Finals stage. LeBron is giving you good numbers, but what can’t [Durant] do? What can’t he do on the court?”
In a sense, Pierce is right, and Billups’ answer to that question — “Hey, let me tell you something, he balled out today, but the best player in the world? I don’t know” — left plenty to be desired. Durant has been ridiculous, playing with remarkable efficiency both offensively and defensively, and it’s hard to argue there’s a single aspect of the game he hasn’t completely controlled through two games.
In Games 1 and 2, Durant has amassed 71 points on 67 percent true shooting, 14 assists against three turnovers, 22 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in a pair of victories. Meanwhile, LeBron has collected 57 points on 63 percent true shooting, 22 assists against 12 turnovers, 26 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in a couple defeats. As efficiency goes, Durant owns a slight edge in the series.
Keep in mind, though, Durant can work more freely within Golden State’s offense. With all-time great shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the wings, it’s impossible for the Cavaliers to game plan solely for Durant. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a roster that features three more prolific 3-point shooters — J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye — make it less easy for the Warriors to throw everything at James, but there is no question he is the singular focus of Golden State’s defense.
“LeBron had a great game,” NBA TV analyst Isiah Thomas said after Game 2, before making a fantastic analogy in this LeBron-Durant debate, via r/NBA. “He had a triple-double, but the energy that he had to put out, that he had to play with, compared to what Kevin Durant had to put out. And this is what we’re talking about when Kenny [Smith] said all [Durant] had to do was make the bed and sweep the floor. Well, on the other side, LeBron James, to get the triple-double, has to make the bed, sweep the floor, fluff the pillow, go downstairs, cook the breakfast, set the table and then feed everybody.”
Defensively, the Warriors can at least attempt to man up against LeBron with Durant, Thompson, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala, while LeBron is the only Cavs player with any hope of defending Durant. Durant had one of his five blocks and one of his three steals while defending LeBron in Game 2, but there’s little doubt LeBron’s responsibilities on both ends in these Finals are greater than Durant’s, even if the five-time First Team All-Defense selection stands little chance against KD, too:
LeBron’s body of work also goes well beyond the first two games of this series and includes a five-game Finals win over Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder on his way to the 2012 NBA championship.
If you’ve watched the first two games of this series, as Pierce ostensibly has, you can absolutely say Durant has been the best player on the floor, as Pierce essentially did. But best player in the world? Ask yourself how LeBron would fare on these Warriors against a Durant-led Cavaliers team. If you can honestly say the Cavs would be any better if they switched places in these Finals, more power to you.
To his credit, Pierce didn’t back away from his statement on Twitter:
The Truth Hurts ????????????????♂️
— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) June 5, 2017
It’s important to remember Pierce’s mentality is a little different than the average spectator. He always seems begrudgingly respectful of James, if only because they split their four playoff meetings from 2008-12. No matter LeBron’s accomplishments, Pierce can and will always point to his 41-point effort in a victory against the four-time MVP during Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals:
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) June 19, 2016
More recently, Pierce has spent his time as an ESPN analyst defending Jordan’s legacy against LeBron:
“How about this,” Pierce said on “The Jump” before the Finals began. “Let’s not talk about Michael. Has he passed Magic? How about that. Has he passed Magic?” Pierce grew up a Magic fan in L.A., so when Tracy McGrady put LeBron in his top five over the Lakers legend, Pierce’s reaction was priceless:
If Pierce believes Magic was better than LeBron, then it would follow that he believes LeBron is well below Jordan, and he made that very clear in a tweet directed at FS1 talking head Nick Wright. It came complete with a misspelling of his rival’s name that could be taken as another form of James shade:
Omg get Nick Wright off of Undisputed now saying labron has passed Michael ????????Jordan????????????????
— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) May 26, 2017
It’s not that Pierce doesn’t respect LeBron. He has repeatedly made his thoughts on the matter clear:
“I think a lot of it is really misunderstood,” Pierce told ESPN.com in 2014. “If I see LeBron walking down the street, it’s not going to be no fistfight. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. It’s like fighting for the same girl. How am I going to be cool with that guy? I’ve got total respect for him as a person. It’s just the thing we go through on the court.”
The feeling is mutual between two players who once nearly came to blows in LeBron’s rookie season. “I would say that I don’t really have an individual rivalry. I think the closest would be Paul Pierce,” James told NBA TV in 2013. “I would say Boston is a rival of mine because I’ve met them so many times in the postseason. I’ve been able to advance against them, they’ve sent me home fishing a few times. So I would say Boston and Paul Pierce would kind of be that guy, if I had to name just one guy.”
And Pierce even rooted for LeBron to beat the Warriors last year. Via HBO’s “Any Given Wednesday”:
“I respect LeBron. People think we have a hate for each other, but I totally respect what he’s done. [But last season] was the first time I was happy he won [an NBA championship] — the first time. [I didn’t like] the other times. I just didn’t want Golden State to win last year, because I was just tired of hearing about the 73 wins. ‘They gonna be better than the [1995-96] Bulls.’ And I think the Bulls team that won 72 games was the greatest team of all time. And I didn’t want that team to be in that conversation.”
A year later, Pierce is again serving as an ESPN analyst, and these NBA Finals present an interesting debate for a future Hall of Famer who seemingly doesn’t want to concede LeBron is better than Jordan or the Warriors are better than the ’96 Bulls. The Truth really tied himself into a pretzel on this one.
When in doubt, always go with the take that concedes neither: Durant is better than LeBron right now.
When Pierce began pondering retirement, James told reporters, “When you face him, you’re going to always compete.” Pierce took that a step further on TNT’s “Area 21,” telling his ex-Celtics teammates both, “Right now LeBron is chasing the G.O.A.T.,” i.e. Jordan, and, “I think I’m the last player that really competed against him. Like, you see guys who are standing in front of him, and they look scared.”
— KG's Area 21 (@KGArea21) May 9, 2017
To which Rajon Rondo quietly asked, “KD don’t compete against him?”
The discussion turned to how Durant and LeBron don’t usually guard each other, as Pierce and LeBron did, before Pierce added, “I’m saying that I wasn’t scared to go toe to toe — I haven’t seen that player.”
Until Sunday, apparently.
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