The truth: If video surfaced of LeBron James falling down a flight of stairs, Paul Pierce would watch it 7,000 times, laughing harder with each and every click of the “replay” button.
Also true: “The Truth” recognizes once-in-a-generation greatness when he sees it:
Pierce: "I rank LeBron as 1 of the greatest players 2 ever play the game.... He's the ultimate challenge."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 4, 2014
Delivered in the aftermath of the Brooklyn Nets' series-clinching 104-103 win over the Toronto Raptors Sunday afternoon, Pierce’s remarks could well be viewed as a subtle psychological grenade, lobbed in lieu of his team’s impending Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with defending champs the Miami Heat.
More accurately, they’re simply the honest musings of a player who will be starting opposite James for the 60th time—regular season and playoffs combined—when the two teams square off Tuesday night.
Notice that, while the two have managed to toe their respective statistical lines in 34 regular-season meetings, Pierce has struggled a bit in 25 postseason tilts opposite James.
Of course, this doesn't really mean anything. Once the A1 option on a perennial Boston Celtics contender, Pierce now occupies more of a glamor-niche role for the Brooklyn Nets, whose owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, has spared no expense in compiling a team capable of giving the three-peat-seeking Heat a run for their money.
That’s not to say we should expect the niceties to continue, of course. Such as it is when you’re dealing with a rivalry this deep-seated and studded with bloody barbs.
In fact, the two’s respect for one another is so mutual, LeBron even put Pierce ahead of the likes of Kobe Bryant when asked by NBA TV’s Ahmad Rashad whom King James felt was his biggest rival (via Jay King of MassLive.com):
I would say that I don't really have an individual rivalry. I think the closest would be Paul Pierce. I would say Boston is a rival of mine because I've met them so many times in the postseason. I've been able to advance against them, they've sent me home fishing a few times. So I would say Boston and Paul Pierce would kind of be that guy, if I had to name just one guy.
…Until the Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman reported James no longer saw Pierce as his chief nemeses, stating, “Paul was one of those rival guys, but I’ve been going against different guys the last few years.”
Since when did NBA blood feuds turn into a college dating scene?
LeBron may have been reacting to a particularly harsh foul administered by Pierce during an Oct. 17 preseason game between the two squads, prompting Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Devine to wax on what it meant for the fast-fading future of the two’s longstanding rivalry.
It's an attitude Pierce wants to see reflected in the Nets' overall approach, to be sure; after all, the relative lack of a defined identity was something many believed hampered the Nets last season, when their collection of stars and talent managed to accomplish little more than a playoff berth and a Game 7 loss to a short-handed team on their home floor. But it's also something Pierce very specifically wants reflected in Brooklyn's relationship to the team presently atop the NBA mountain, according to Tim Bontemps of the New York Post.
James and company hear the footsteps, clearly: Miami whiffed in each of its four regular-season meetings with the Nets, and no one expects the forthcoming series to be the kind of cakewalk the Heat enjoyed in their first-round throttling of the helpless Charlotte Bobcats.
For an Eastern Conference that has taken something of a narrative backseat to the bonkers going-on out West, the showdown between Brooklyn and Miami promises intensity and intrigue in heaping handfuls.
More specifically, the series gives us a chance to enjoy perhaps the last, best chapter in a rivalry that has helped shape and in many ways define an entire generation of NBA players.
Now, if only we could get one of them to admit on record that he “wouldn’t add that guy to my Sprint Family for a billion dollars”—watch out.