Paul Pierce's mistake wasn't asking to guard LeBron James. It was letting the world know he'd made such a request.
Because James lives in the world. He reads things, probably on a Samsung smartphone featuring his own eponymous app.
He knows when someone says they want to try to slow him down. He probably gets a push notification on the subject.
You just don't give players like James extra motivation. For all of Pierce's veteran experience, his championship ring and years of All-Star-caliber play, he should have known better.
Per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN, Pierce's fatal admission came after Game 3 between the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat: "I went to J-Kidd [for] Game 2 and said I want that assignment. ... I think I've guarded him more than anybody in this gym. I know his tendencies a little bit more and I just try to step up in that role and try to lead that way."
In Games 2 and 3, Pierce did as well on James as could be expected.
In Game 2, Pierce guarded James on 42 percent of his plays and limited him to eight points in that second Heat win. The average distance of James' field-goal attempts with Pierce on him was 18.6 feet compared to 9.6 against all other Nets defenders. James attempted one drive on Pierce during that win, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
In Game 3, James got off to a hot start, hitting 6 of his first 7 shots and scoring 16 points in the first quarter. But James went 2-for-8 the remainder of the game and finished with 28 points.
Game 4 was a different story, probably because James had become aware of Pierce's request when it hit the news cycle after Game 3. If you think about it, that had to be the reason. It's not as if James suddenly woke up and said to himself, "Wait a minute—I own this guy!"
LBJ couldn't abide the thought of someone publicly advertising a willingness to guard him. So he destroyed Pierce, piling up a playoff career-high 49 points on 16-of-24 shooting in 43 minutes.
What happened in Game 4 wasn't a phenomenon unique to James. Michael Jordan would have reacted the same way.
"He wants to guard me?", MJ would have said to himself incredulously.
Ditto for Kobe Bryant.
Unfortunately for Pierce, James' beatdown was just the latest in a long line of one-on-one stompings.
Taking an opportunity to do what it does best, the Internet had derisive jokes at the ready.
Barkley: "Pierce said he wanted to guard LeBron. He should have asked for a blindfold and a cigarette."— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 13, 2014
And memes. There were memes, too.
To be fair to Pierce, he's seen James in 29 playoff games—more than any other opponent. So his presence on the above list is as much a function of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time as anything else.
If it seems far-fetched that James took Pierce's comment personally, maybe you'd prefer to believe LBJ simply turned up the intensity because Game 4 was a pivotal contest. Knowing he could give his team a nearly insurmountable 3-1 lead was certainly a motivator for James. Maybe he just wanted to get the win, regardless of who was matched up against him.
Then again, maybe not.
A day earlier, Pierce said he had lobbied coach Jason Kidd to guard James, if for no other reason than his familiarity playing against the four-time MVP. But here was Pierce serving as a mere practice cone with 3:06 remaining in the first quarter, when James finished his flush and proceeded with a lengthy stare-down of his long-time nemesis. The ball then ricocheted from the hoop onto the court, right in front of James. He let it roll, standing broad-shouldered and defiant in his dominance, clearly on a mission.
The mission was a familiar one: Destroy Pierce.
There's no shame in getting owned by the best player on the planet. If anything, Pierce deserves credit for continuing to stand up against James. That's valuable to his teammates, whom he knows he's inspiring with his willingness to take on such an impossible challenge.
"What I try to do in this locker room and with my teammates is just try to give them belief—that we can beat this team," Pierce said, per Youngmisuk. "They're not unbeatable. You've got to have that mental approach if you're trying to get over that mountain you're trying to climb."
You have to respect that attitude.
Pierce used the "mountain" metaphor to refer to the challenge of surviving in the playoffs. But it also applies to the task of dealing with James, imposing as he is.
LBJ buried the Nets in an avalanche of buckets in Game 4, and he's likely to do it again before the series is over. Pierce can and should keep trying, though. It's important to his team that he not give up.
Forget climbing mountains and setting examples. At this point, there's not much of a rivalry between Pierce and James anymore. Unless, of course, you think there's a rivalry between hammers and nails.
Pierce and the Nets are in for a pounding in Game 5.