NEW YORK -- LeBron James hasn’t liked Paul Pierce since they almost got into a fight after a preseason game in 2004. He hasn’t liked Jason Terry since James was a rookie in 2003 when Terry undercut him on a dangerous flagrant foul. He hasn’t liked Kevin Garnett since, well, as long as he can remember.
History trumps laundry. If you ever had a doubt the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat would transfer to Brooklyn, let the past two days give you the answer. The Heat and Nets played a generally meaningless preseason game Thursday night, won by the Nets 86-62, but it wasn’t message-less.
James fired first on Wednesday when he answered the innocuous question of “What was the first thing you thought when the Nets traded for Garnett and Pierce?” with a controlled rant that not-so-thinly branded them hypocrites for their treatment of Ray Allen when he left the Celtics a year earlier. The words flowed from James with such ease that you could tell he’d given this same speech in private many times and probably with much more edge and venom.
Thursday within the first few minutes of the game, Garnett had covertly raked James across the face while looking the other way, James’ mussed headband leaving evidence. A few moments later, Pierce body checked James on a fast break, the first of several playoff-style fouls he issued to James during the game.
The James-Pierce dynamic was the only thing interesting going on. They were playing at a different speed. Pushing, glaring, competing. James was issuing stares toward the Nets’ bench after made baskets. He ball hawked Pierce full court in the final seconds of the third quarter, their last time on the floor, like it was a game-deciding possession.
“They had some competitive skirmishes, yeah,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said in summing it up.
Pierce had no comment on the matter. James said “I’m just trying to get better,” a catchall phrase he likes to use when he’s not all that interested in answering a question.
Garnett went further.
“Tell LeBron to worry about Miami,” Garnett said. “He has nothing to do with Celtic business.”
Celtic business, Nets business, Heat business, Cleveland Cavaliers business, Dallas Mavericks business, doesn’t matter. There’s little point in parsing the details. These players are in deep with each other, and the dislike has more depth than the respect.
Pierce and Garnett crushed James’ dreams twice in the playoffs in Cleveland. Dwyane Wade has his own history with the Celtics -- the playoff loss they gave him in 2010 convinced him to change his entire world in an effort to beat them. Allen’s situation is self-evident. Who knows what sort of things Garnett has spoken into Chris Bosh’s ears over the years, but there’s no love lost there either. Terry ran his mouth throughout the 2011 Finals when his Mavericks twice came from behind to take the title from the Heat. This version of the Heat twice ended the Celtics' season, the final blow in Game 7 in 2012 essentially ending their run together.
This is simply a can’t-miss rivalry.
“Yeah,” Wade said when asked if the disdain would carry down from New England. “I know you’re looking for a better answer, but yeah.”
Heat president Pat Riley, who was at the game Thursday in a rare preseason road trip, has a saying about the “always forever and the always never.” It’s one of his gems that is so memorable because it’s so true.
“When you win a championship together you have that always forever,” Riley said recently. “When you see each other when you’re 65 years old, you’ll always have it, it never goes away.”
Riley’s always never is just as binding. This core of players has competed year after year against each other, that have ruined seasons, that have made nightmares of summers. In an era in which opponents party together, vacation together and work out together, these rivals will always never like each other. Not in any of the perhaps 10 or more times they’ll play this season, not at their kids’ AAU games, not when they see each other at Hall of Fame functions.
Probably not even when they’re 65.