NEW YORK -- Paul Pierce asked for it.
Pierce wanted the seemingly impossible assignment of guarding LeBron James.
In other words, the unenviable task of trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable.
And Monday night, James was just that, putting on yet another transcendent performance that 17,732 fans inside Barclays Center will never forget.
James made Pierce and the rest of the Brooklyn Nets pay in the paint time and time again, taking over and pouring in a playoff career-high-tying 49 points as the Miami Heat took a commanding 3-1 series lead with a 102-96 victory in Game 4.
“It’s tough to guard him one-on-one,” Pierce admitted afterward in the locker room. “You gotta try to slow him down. You gotta try to send multiple guys at him and make him kick the ball, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
James went 5-for-8 from the field and scored 18 points when guarded by Pierce, according to ESPN Stats & Information. During the series, James has scored 41 points on 54.2 percent shooting (13-for-24) when matched up against Pierce.
“He’s strong, he gets inside, he’s able to finish, and so we’ve got to do a better job when he’s driving the ball, bringing another man and making him get rid of the ball,” Pierce said. “Tonight, he just forced his way to the hole, we didn’t get in his way, and he found a lot of lanes.”
Pierce didn’t guard James much in Game 1 but went to coach Jason Kidd prior to Game 2 and asked to take on the challenge himself.
“I said I want that assignment,” Pierce said. “I think I’ve guarded him more than anybody in the gym. I know his tendencies a little bit more, and I just try to step up in that role and try to lead the way.”
But it didn’t matter who the Nets threw at James. He scored 12 points in the first quarter, 13 in the second, 15 in the third -- including a stretch of 13 straight -- and nine in the fourth. He scored 34 of his points on plays in which he attacked the basket, according to ESPN Stats & Information, going 11-for-12 in the restricted area.
“I felt that we needed to win this game,” said James, whose night was highlighted by a couple of one-handed hammer dunks in transition and a long 3-pointer from what felt like Bay Ridge late in the fourth.
“So whatever I needed to do for us to win this game, it needed to be done.”
Pierce and James have gone head-to-head 63 times. Over the years, they’ve grown to despise yet respect one another, as bitter playoff rivals usually do. Pierce wanted the Nets to know that the Heat were not unbeatable, that they could stick with the two-time defending champions.
“Words don't win the game, you've got to go out and play. Why should there be a fear factor, it’s just basketball,” James said Sunday. “We’re not trying to win a war here, it's just basketball. We're all grown men -- who cares about who is fearing who. We've never been a team that talks, we don't get into that. We’ve never been a bulletin board team. We just want to play the right way and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Brooklyn did just that in Game 3, hitting a franchise playoff-record 15 3-pointers in a 14-point win. And it looked as though they might be able to even the series in Game 4. Pierce scored seven of his 16 points in the fourth, giving the Nets a 90-89 lead with 4:24 remaining, when he converted a circus three-point play.
But was the second-to-last field goal of the night for Brooklyn. James ultimately had a hockey assist on Chris Bosh's go-ahead 3-pointer in the corner with 57 seconds left, and the Nets went just 2-for-13 from the field in the final 7:24.
“We can’t allow a player like [LeBron] to be in the paint all night,” Kevin Garnett said.
James’ dominant performance on Saturday night was eerily similar to his 45-point outing in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Pierce and Garnett’s Boston Celtics at TD Bank Garden. The Heat came back from down 3-2 to win that series, the last time Pierce and Garnett have advanced that far in the playoffs.
Pierce and Garnett were hoping for revenge this time around. But Pierce’s comments might have awoken the King -- and on Monday night, he held court in Brooklyn.
This wasn’t the 22 points he scored in Games 1 and 2 or the 28 he scored in Game 3.
This was 49 points. This was sending the Nets to the brink of elimination.
“We just gotta get one game,” Pierce said. “That’s the mindset. The series is far from over.”
The way James played in Game 4, it doesn’t feel that way.
“He’s a great player,” Pierce said of James, as painful as it was for him to say it. “You can’t take nothing away from him. He stepped up when his team needed him to.”