NEW YORK -- The message was sent with 6:46 left in the first quarter of a meaningless preseason game at Barclays Center Thursday night.
The reigning MVP was out in transition, barreling toward the basket like a freight train.
That’s when Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce lowered his right shoulder into the Heat's LeBron James just inside the 3-point arc, delivering a hard, playoff-like foul as if he were a hulking hockey defenseman delivering an open-ice hit.
“That’s going to be our identity. That’s a message to the league,” Pierce said.
“We want to be a hard, grind-it-out team. We want nothing to be easy. That’s what we’re trying to show in the last couple of games, the way our defense has been playing. We’ve given up so few points. That’s the message we want to send. Some nights our shots are not gonna fall, but we can control that end [the defensive end] of the court.”
James has won 17 straight regular-season games against the Nets. The Heat went 3-0 versus Brooklyn last season, winning those three games by an average of 21 points. James got whatever he wanted, dominating the Nets to the tune of 21.7 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists on 55.6 percent shooting.
But this season, Pierce and teammate Kevin Garnett are out to change that.
When the Nets acquired the future Hall of Fame forwards from the Boston Celtics during the summer, they weren’t just getting leadership. They were getting much-needed toughness, too.
Toughness that stems from all the playoff battles Pierce and KG endured with the Celtics, four of them coming against LeBron (2-0 vs. Cleveland; 0-2 vs. Miami).
“They’re the [two-time defending] champs. We have to go through them,” Pierce said. “They’ve taken what we’ve tried to accomplish the last couple years in Boston. We’re here in Brooklyn now and it’s the same type of attitude.”
As James said pregame, “You had to kill those guys [the Celtics]. They wouldn’t stop.”
James and KG and Pierce went at it just as hard off the court as they did on it. The Heat star accused the newest Nets of being hypocritical, criticizing sharpshooter Ray Allen for leaving Boston for Miami when they themselves left Boston for Brooklyn.
“Tell LeBron to worry about Miami. It has nothing to do with Celtic business,” he said.
Added Pierce, incredulously: “I left Boston?”
The first regular-season meeting between the two teams in Brooklyn, on Nov. 1, can’t come soon enough.
The Nets might have been a soft and vanilla team last season, but that’s not their identity anymore.
They’ve also improved their roster dramatically during the summer, adding KG, Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko to a core that already included Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Their moves certainly caught the attention of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
“How do you not respect it? Really. They had a terrific summer,” he said. “It is not easy to accumulate that type of talent and have that many All-Stars on the same team. And you could feel the excitement from the offseason that they have.
“We respect that. We knew the competition would get better. We knew an organization like this wouldn’t stand pat and they would push to get better.”
When asked if he figured the rivalry with KG and Pierce would carry over to Brooklyn, Heat guard Dwyane Wade simply responded: “Yes.”