MIAMI -- LeBron James knew they'd be back.
That's why when many throughout the NBA figured James had vanquished his demons in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for good in a seven-game series victory two years ago during the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat superstar knew it wasn't over. Even James' teammates were fooled.
"I thought when we played them in Boston, we buried them," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "They had their reign on top. We were able to overcome. We've had our reign on top, and now they're trying to overcome [again]."
Just consider Pierce basketball's version of Michael Myers and Garnett as its Jason Voorhees. It's only a matter of time before the plot thickens, they resurface in a new town and the two wreak more havoc like horror-movie villains.
So after seeing them evolve from the end of an era in Boston to signing on as the championship heart and soul of a reloaded Brooklyn Nets team, James anticipated there would be a reunion with his old rivals in the late spring.
“That's why they put that team together, and it should be fun,” James said of the ex-Celtics catalysts reincarnated as Nets. “You see them so much, there's really nothing to hide. They know my tendencies, I know their tendencies, their likes and dislikes and vice versa. It should be very challenging.”
James is quite familiar with that challenge.
For the third time in four seasons, James and the Heat find themselves staring down Pierce and Garnett in the playoffs, this time in a second-round series against the Nets that opens with Game 1 Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. But James' history with the veteran duo goes back much further to his days in Cleveland. In total, James has faced Pierce and Garnett in 25 playoff games the past seven seasons.
And despite a 13-12 edge in those games, including eight victories in two series wins while with the Heat, James is trying to reverse a more recent trend of struggles against the duo. The Nets swept the regular-season series 4-0, marking the first time Miami has lost four games to an opponent in the regular season since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became teammates in 2010.
Neither the Heat nor the Nets were at full strength for most of those meetings, with both Wade and Garnett missing 28 games to rest and recover from nagging injuries during the season. But the Nets' combination of veteran experience, perimeter length and balanced scoring in those games was enough of a problem to garner the Heat's full attention entering this series.
When the Nets added Pierce to anchor a near-$200 million roster makeover that featured a starting five with a combined 35 All-Star appearances, first-year coach Jason Kidd said Brooklyn had assembled the necessary “horses” to compete with the Heat atop the East.
With the Heat and Nets meeting in the second round, at least one thing is assured: One team's season is going to end in complete failure and well short of expectations based on investment and star power. Heat players acknowledge that the Nets pose arguably the biggest challenge in the conference in Miami's quest to reach the Finals for a fourth straight year and win a third consecutive NBA title.
“They beat us four times, and at the end of the day, it's about getting wins,” Wade said of a regular-season series that saw three games decided by a point and a fourth go to double overtime. “They've figured out ways to beat us in close games four times. So we've got to crack the code. They've strengthened even more since we played them. Obviously, we've gone up another level since the regular season [too], but that doesn't guarantee we win these games.”
Miami and Brooklyn couldn't enter Tuesday under more different circumstances.
The Heat were the only team to sweep its first-round series, and have had eight days off since they finished off the Charlotte Bobcats in four games. The lengthy break has afforded James ample time to recover from a nagging thigh bruise he sustained in the second half of Game 4 in Charlotte.
Wade also said Monday that he's no longer dealing with lingering soreness from the knee, Achilles and hamstring issues he spent the final months of the season battling. But now that the playoffs feature games every other night in the second round, Wade anticipates having to manage recurring soreness.
The Nets, meanwhile, used most of Monday to rest in Miami. They arrived Sunday night after a one-point victory on the road in Game 7 against Toronto, which finished third in the conference behind the Pacers and Heat. Both Pierce and Joe Johnson said they like how well they match up with the Heat and believe their balance and depth could offset the top-heavy dominance of James, Wade and Bosh.
James averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and more than 2 steals while carrying the Heat through a first-round series in which Wade worked through some conditioning issues and Bosh was inconsistent beyond his outside shooting touch.
“It's going to be a lot of LeBron, a lot of Wade, a lot of Bosh,” Pierce said. “With us, I think we have five, six, seven guys that on any given night [can take over a game]. That makes us tough to scout and very unpredictable.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the Nets' success against Miami this season never came up during any of the preparation for the upcoming series.
“We didn't talk about it, but I'm sure it's great for discussion out there,” Spoelstra said Monday. “It depends on who you ask. Naturally, if we were to talk about it, we would say, 'Hey, this is the playoffs, it's a different season.' If you're them, they're saying, 'Hey, we can beat them. We have great confidence. We already did it four times.' It depends on how you look at it.”
James feels much better about the fact that the Nets will be looking at a Heat team that's healthy and whole after enduring a regular season that saw Miami use 21 different starting lineups because of injuries. The Nets have overcome similar issues since losing center Brook Lopez to a foot injury early in the season. Now, after a handful of sparring matches, James is bracing for a major prizefight.
And after so many battles over so many seasons in so many different uniforms, it's yet another showdown with Pierce that stands between James and another dose of postseason prosperity.
“I've always wanted to compete against the best in the postseason [and] I've always looked at Paul as one of the better guys we have in our league,” James said. “He's had the upper edge on me. I've had the upper edge on him. It's another opportunity to see who gets the upper edge.”