BROOKLYN — LeBron James was barreling toward the lane at full speed, all muscle and momentum, when suddenly the route closed, his stride violently disrupted by two forearms to the torso, his path obstructed by a stone-faced Paul Pierce.
Just five minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed in Thursday night’s preseason game between the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets, and already the two longtime adversaries were trading bruises and icy glares.
“A message,” Pierce said later, though he left the intended recipient ambiguous.
To LeBron? To the defending champion Heat?
“That’s going to be our identity,” Pierce said sternly. “That’s a message to the league.”
It just so happened that James got the brunt of it, as he did again in the third quarter, when Pierce delivered another hard shove to break up a fast-break layup. The Barclays Center crowd howled in delight, and the Nets shoved their way to an 86-62 victory.
In acquiring Pierce and Kevin Garnett in July, the Nets gained credibility as contenders, and an infusion of nasty. More than that, they acquired the history, the emotional tension and the muscle memory of a still-simmering rivalry: the Boston Celtics vs. LeBron James.
Twice in three springs, the Celtics wrecked James’ path to the NBA Finals, booting his Cleveland Cavaliers from the playoffs and ultimately dealing a blow so powerful, it sent James all the way to South Beach. It was after a Game 6 loss to Boston in the 2010 conference semifinals that James stripped off his Cavaliers jersey for the last time.
When James—aided by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—finally overcame the Celtics in the 2011 playoffs, he dropped to his knees to savor the moment. And when he bested them again the following spring, leading the Heat back from a 3-2 deficit to take the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games, James might rightfully have believed he had vanquished the Celtics for good.
“You had to kill those guys, man,” James said Thursday. “They wouldn’t stop.”
They still haven’t stopped, despite James’ best attempts.
Who will win the East?
The Celtics are not dead, merely transplanted, and now James has to consider them all over again. Pierce and Garnett are a little older, but no less feisty, and they have a new cast of All-Stars to lean on in Brooklyn.
The Nets will get their scoring from Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. All they need from Pierce and Garnett is leadership and defense, and a blueprint for flustering James in April and May.
“The potential is definitely there for us to be one of those teams that can be talked about in NBA history,” Pierce said. “But it’s up to us to go out there and show it, be healthy and make a great run and win a championship to be in those talks.”
The East is now stacked with legitimate contenders, with the Nets joining the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers as threats to Miami’s three-year reign.
Had they stayed in Boston until retirement, Pierce and Garnett might never have seen that opportunity again. Had Garnett been sent to the Los Angeles Clippers—as the Celtics originally intended during the Doc Rivers negotiations in June—the Nets might still be a bland, second-tier playoff team. Had Celtics president Danny Ainge followed the unwritten rule for trading stars—send them to the opposite conference, whenever possible—then James could have been spared the unsettling thought of finding Pierce and Garnett again clogging his path to the basket, or the finals.
But Pierce and Garnett landed in Brooklyn, and for James there could be no worse outcome.
“He does not want to see them,” said Cedric Maxwell, the Celtics’ radio commentator. “If there was an Achilles heel, Paul Pierce has had some great battles with LeBron. KG hates the Miami Heat. … I think it helps the Nets out tremendously.”
The change in the Nets is already evident. Last season, those two barreling fast-break drives by James would have ended with soaring tomahawk dunks. The Heat humiliated the Nets three times last season, by an average margin of 21 points. James treated the lane like a velvet carpet laid out for a king.
When the subject of the Nets’ summer transformation was raised before tipoff, James batted the question away. Asked if they were title contenders, he said flatly, “I have no idea.”
But James’ disdain for the old Celtics had already come through clearly a day earlier, when he spoke spitefully of the trade that sent Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn. James saw hypocrisy in the move, having watched the Celtics turn on Ray Allen when he left to join the Heat last year.
"I think the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, Ray got killed for leaving Boston, and now these guys are leaving Boston,'" James told reporters on Wednesday. "I think it's OK; I didn't mind it. But there were a couple guys who basically (criticized) Ray for leaving, and now they’re leaving."
It seemed to be lost on James that the circumstances were fundamentally different, with Allen leaving as a free agent and Pierce and Garnett leaving—reluctantly—in a trade intended to start the Celtics’ rebuilding process.
“I left Boston?” Pierce responded Thursday, in mock confusion, after a reporter relayed James’ diatribe.
Garnett took the more direct approach: “It has nothing to do with LeBron. Worry about Miami. He has nothing to do with Celtic business.”
These teams will meet again next Friday in Miami for a final preseason tuneup, and then again one week later in the Nets’ home opener. By then, the tension should be at regular-season levels.
Thursday’s game was far from a true test, for either team. Williams is still nursing a sore ankle, and the Nets held out their top two reserves, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry—another former Celtic with a history of irritating James. The Heat held out Dwyane Wade. Garnett played just 10 minutes.
But James was typically splendid, scoring 16 points in 28 minutes and at one point blowing right past Pierce for a pretty reverse layup. As the final meaningless seconds of a meaningless third quarter ticked away, James sent his own subtle message, pressing Pierce in the backcourt, harassing him on every dribble.
The jerseys have changed, from green to black and white. But the rivalry lives on. The memories remain vivid.
“LeBron,” Maxwell said, “does not forget.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.