Veteran forward Paul Pierce has had his share of one-on-one matchups throughout his career — many of which he dominated offensively and some that were tough to defend. His era had some of the most unstoppable wingmen the league has ever seen. According to Pierce, none were more talented and difficult to guard than Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
Pierce thoughtfully crafted this list as a contributing editor for ThePlayersTribune.com. Let’s examine his choices.
Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce have had some of the most classic matchups in NBA history, which spans back to when he torched the Lakers for 42 points, which led to Shaquille O’Neal nicknaming him “The Truth.” They also played each other two consecutive years in the NBA Finals, providing a ring each. Pierce won his only championship and Finals MVP against Bryant and the Lakers. The following year, the Lakers took out Pierce and the Celtics in payback fashion.
Outside of these two individual battles, they have phenomenal respect for each other. Bryant even commented on his assessment of Pierce’s game. “I have been studying Paul Pierce’s game and would like to focus on longevity like his.” Pierce’s respect for Bryant is mutual as well, especially since Kobe is one of his tougher opponents. “Kobe has the mentality of a basketball serial killer. He’s going to come at you every single way possible and he’s not going to let up. His mentality — his killer instinct — is what separates him from the other guys on this list, because once Kobe knows he has you, he’s going to keep attacking you. He’ll throw you down, beat you up, and even when you’re knocked out, he’ll keep hitting you.”
If it weren’t for the inevitable, T-Mac would still be amongst the elite. Similar to guarding Bryant, McGrady also dominated his opponents in many ways. Pierce described McGrady as a “point guard in a small forward’s body.” While McGrady could do it all, his specialty was scoring. He was one of the most explosive scorers ever, hence such accolades like averaging 32.1 points per game in a single season, 13 points in 35 seconds against the San Antonio Spurs and his many highlight reels, regardless of the opponent. McGrady was nearly unstoppable, according to Pierce. “Since there was no way to stop Tracy’s shot, you just had to do everything you could to make sure he didn’t get in a position to shoot. So, I would always do my best to deny Tracy the ball and be physical with him,” said Pierce.
Pierce and McGrady both played in the Eastern Conference for years, before McGrady was traded to the Houston Rockets. While he didn’t have much success winning, his green-lighted individual performances gave basketball enough to remember him as one of the league’s most dominant scorers.
Carter and Pierce have been connected at the hip since their high school days. While both were seniors in high school, they squared off in a dunk contest, which was won by Carter. They also shared their collegiate days as two of the NCAA’s top performers. Once they got to the NBA, they quickly became superstars and leaders for their teams. Regardless the stage, Carter always displayed his best attribute: athleticism. To Pierce, that is what made him one of the toughest players to guard. “This term gets thrown out a lot to describe NBA players, but with Vince, it absolutely fits. This guy is just an athletic freak. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, we had some serious battles.”
Many of their battles consisted of several patented step back jumpers from Pierce and various SportsCenter-worthy highlights from Air Canada. “He’s hell to guard out on the perimeter because of the elevation on his shot. But, you were so afraid of him blowing by you and throwing down a dunk that would be all over SportsCenter, that you would allow him space to shoot. Then he would get hot from three-point range and at that point … what do you do?” Still today, Carter and Pierce are linked together. They are both providing veteran leadership to teams that are contenders. And even though they are inching closer to 40 years of age, Pierce is still hitting those step back jumpers and Carter is still flying over opponents from time to time.
Perhaps the most underrated one-on-one match-ups in NBA history. No other two players have seen each other in recent times as James and Pierce. Year after year, the two have been rivals, annihilating each other in sniffling attempt to claim supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Although James will come out as the top player when it’s all said and done, Pierce will be remembered as James’ kryptonite and his most remembered match-up. Simultaneously, James is Pierce’s as well and guarding him will always be one of his more difficult tasks in basketball. “The only way to stop LeBron from getting an and-one is to straight up tackle him. Slapping down on his hands simply won’t work — he’s too strong.”
Outside of James’ physicality, Pierce also believes it’s James outstanding and rare skillset that sets him apart and makes him unguardable. “Once he takes his first step off the dribble, if he gets to the side of you, there’s no staying in front of him. He’s just too strong when he gets his shoulder into your chest. And he’s also one of the best finishers with his left and right hand that this league has ever seen.”
If anyone can comment on what it is like to guard James, it is Pierce. Their match-ups span from regular season games to classic showdowns in the postseason. No matter where he faced James, Pierce betted on one thing: “You’re going to be sore all over for the next few days.”
Like many would include, Carmelo Anthony happens to be the most difficult player Pierce has ever had to guard. His mix of size, sneaky athleticism and his ability to score from anywhere on the court is essential and have dubbed Melo as one of the most lethal scorers the NBA has ever seen. In the words of Stephen A. Smith, in reference to Stephen Curry, “Not only will be buggy on you, he will pull up from 30!” Anthony’s ranging skillset caught Pierce’s eye claiming that Anthony has a “world-class” shooting ability and concluding that there isn’t a spot on the court that Anthony can’t consistently hit shots.
Pierce and Anthony have had their share of battles when Melo played with the Denver Nuggets, but more prominently, is their Eastern Conference clashes throughout the years. New York Knicks’ fans hate Paul Pierce, mostly because of the collection of classic performances he’s had in Madison Square Garden. While he is heavily disliked within the Knicks’ organization and among their fanbase, Pierce hates playing the Knicks just as much, especially when he’s guarding Anthony. Since Anthony has been with the Knicks, Pierce has had the assignment of guarding Anthony. “To put it plainly, he’s not a fun assignment on defense,” said Pierce. He even commented on how Anthony is much more difficult to guard than others. “Kobe is one of the best scorers in NBA history, but I don’t have as much trouble with him in the post as I do with Carmelo. LeBron is a great post-up player, but if you get him to settle for the jumper on some nights, you might be able to slow him down if his shot is off. That’s not the case with Melo. If you give him space to shoot, he’ll make it many more times than he misses it.”
These five guys, along with Pierce, were some of the league’s most talented players during their respective times. How do you feel about Pierce’s list?