Pietrus takes unique path to postseason

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As you contemplate whether LeBron James will score 40, 50 or 60 points in tonight's crucial Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, give a little consideration to the guy who will try to prevent that from happening.

That guy is Mickael Pietrus, the athletic Frenchman by way of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe who joined the Orlando Magic last summer as a free agent. As the season developed, Pietrus was widely considered something of a bust as he was injured, lost his starting job to rookie Courtney Lee, then was kept on the bench in favor of J.J. Redick in the second-round playoff series against Boston.

This round, Pietrus has been reborn.

"I feel I can stay with him, get in front of him, get my feet set and go out there and fight," Pietrus said of defending James. "I'm not trying to say to myself that I'm going to stop him; I'm just challenging myself, because I want to say I came from nothing to something, and there are only so many opportunities in life where you can be in this kind of situation."

The players Pietrus defended in Game 3 shot a combined 0-for-7 when he was guarding them, including an 0-for-4 showing by James.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has used Pietrus as the first sub off the bench, usually to replace Hedo Turkoglu, but Pietrus also has been on the floor for the bulk of the fourth-quarter minutes over the course of this series.

Defenders often try to force James to his left, but Pietrus says he has no special tricks. Like Bruce Bowen in the NBA Finals two years ago, Pietrus prefers to defend James straight up, believing his own lateral quickness going either way will get the job done.

"Defense is not something you work on; it's something you commit to mentally. If you want to be the best player you can be, you have to be mentally crazy about basketball," Pietrus said.

If not crazy off the court, Pietrus certainly can be goofy and good-natured, a fact to which many around the Magic and some of his former Golden State teammates can attest. Those traits have made him both popular and enigmatic.

His game can take on the same qualities. His talents are hardly limited to his defense, as evidenced by the 3-point shooting and dunking prowess he has shown over the course of the playoffs, especially in this series: 16 points in 21 minutes in Game 3, 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in 17 minutes in Game 2, 13 points in 30 minutes in Game 1.

Pietrus' success in defending James -- who shot 9-for-12 from the paint, 1-for-8 from mid-range and 1-for-8 on 3s in accumulating his 41 points in Game 3 -- is even more mind-boggling when you consider their respective journeys to this stage.

At age 15, James was bursting onto the national radar with a breakout performance at the Five-Star basketball camp that left scouts convinced he was already the top teenage player in America. By 16, James' games were appearing on national television; and when he was 18 he strode across the stage at Madison Square Garden in a solid all-white suit, the perfect garb for a player expected to become the savior of the Cavs' franchise.

And then there is Pietrus.

At 15, he was playing pickup games barefooted at a schoolyard on Guadeloupe, running around the chipped and cracked pavement of an elementary school's outdoor concrete court in the city of St. Anne -- the only basketball court within 20 miles.

Pietrus' older brother, Ronnie Coco, had left the island years earlier to play for Pau Orthez in France, leaving Pietrus and his brother, Florent, back on the island to be raised by their grandmother. (Pietrus' mom died when he was 9.)

One day, Coco informed Pau Orthez officials that they should have a look at his two younger brothers (Florent now plays for France's national team), and the team bought into the idea and flew the brothers over.

"My only dream at that point was to own a pair of Air Jordans. I ended up buying them all, every model," said Pietrus, whose post-practice footwear Monday was a pair of red low-top canvas Chuck Taylors.

The Golden State Warriors, whose front office at the time included current Orlando general manager Otis Smith, selected Pietrus with the 11th pick of the 2003 draft, six spots after that draft's famous five of James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

A day later, Pietrus was in Oakland meeting face-to-face with Smith, who was left with a strong impression: "He was young and green, and his eyes were wide open to anything and everything. He and I hit it off right away, and I had been trying to get him ever since I left Golden State [later in the summer of 2003]."

Smith's big offseason signing, Pietrus, was bewildered at the end of Game 2 of this series when he was taken off James for Cleveland's final possession in favor of Hedo Turkoglu. Van Gundy believed Turkoglu would be less prone to bite on a head fake that could leave a back-door opening for James to receive a lob pass at the rim.

Instead, Pietrus was assigned to cover decoy Sasha Pavlovic, and he made a critical mistake by chasing Pavlovic almost all the way to the midcourt line on the inbounds play on which Mo Williams hit James with the pass that set up James' game-winning 3-pointer. Had Pietrus not chased Pavlovic so far, he would have cut off the passing lane.

"I think he tries to do things the way the coaches want, but sometimes he has his own method," Smith said. "But defense is about effort and nothing else, and it's because he puts the effort into it that he's good at it."

Speaking on Monday about Orlando's European players -- Hedo Turkoglu, Marcin Gortat and Pietrus -- Van Gundy went into a long tangent about how Europeans are light-years ahead of Americans developmentally, contrasting how the best young players overseas are put into professional programs when they are teenagers so they can learn to compete against grown men, spending their time in two-a-day practices -- one of which is often devoted solely to skill development -- while American prospects are striving to be hyped at that age, not to be developed.

"We want to take our young kids and put them on magazine covers and give them adulation instead of making them better skill-wise," Van Gundy said, going so far as to predict that there might never be an American player to enter the NBA with the same skill level as Dirk Nowitzki, whose formative years were spent developing the practice habits that have made him such a refined, complete player.

"We have a system where we rank sixth-graders," Van Gundy said. "I mean, who actually cares who the top 10 sixth-graders are? Who cares if your team won the central Florida 12-and-under title? Why would that matter to anybody? It's not going to help their skill development."

Which leads us back to Pietrus, who is relishing the attention he's receiving for his defense against James, while at the same time being careful to stay humble.

After all, if LBJ drops something in the 50-plus range Tuesday night, the last thing Pietrus wants to hear is that it was his fault because he was bragging about being some sort of LeBron stopper.

"I'm just trying to enjoy the moment," Pietrus said. "You may only have one opportunity in life where you can be in this situation, going for a ring, and next year you are not promised anything. So I'm on a mission: competing against the best, and hopefully I'll be the best."

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.