Earlier this week, LeBron James sat down for a one-on-one with Ahmad Rashad (aka the Larry King of sports journalism), and in a revelation that came as a shock to absolutely no one who’s been paying attention for the past few years, he named Paul Pierce as his biggest rival.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
It was always supposed to be Kobe Bryant. It was supposed to be Magic/Bird revisited. It was supposed to be the second coming of Russell/Chamberlain. It was supposed to be the two transcendent players of our time battling it out for basketball supremacy on the world’s biggest stage, and we all wanted it so badly that the good people at Nike literally tried to will it for us with an ill-fated (and progressively aggravating) series of commercials leading up to the 2009 NBA Finals.
But fate ultimately intervened, and LeBron and his Cavs were once again bounced from the playoffs while Kobe took a cakewalk to his fourth championship. We were left in such a state of denial that Nike inexplicably continued to air the commercials throughout the Finals. Alas, the Kobe vs. LeBron rivalry was never meant to be.
And there have been plenty of other worthy adversaries. First, there was Carmelo Anthony, his draft lottery cohort who he’d been battling since high school. Then there was Dwyane Wade, but we all know how that turned out. Then there’s Kevin Durant, his best friend and workout buddy extraordinaire who has all the makings of an arch nemesis and may yet emerge as his definitive foe during the second half of his career.
But on two separate occasions in 2008 and 2010, it was Paul Pierce who stood in the way of the Kobe versus LeBron dream Finals, and it was Paul Pierce, our consolation prize and our stand-in for James, who outdueled Kobe in the 2008 Finals. He beat James again in 2010 to put our dream to rest.
Like it or not, it has always been Paul Pierce — the man Shaq once dubbed “The Truth” and the man Bill Simmons once called the greatest small forward of the 2000s not named LeBron.
Arguably, James wouldn’t be the player he is today had it not been for Pierce and the Celtics, who consistently tested his mettle like no one else, who were to LeBron what the Bad Boy Pistons were to Michael Jordan in the late ‘80s: the ones responsible for his toughest growing pains as a budding superstar. It was only fitting that LeBron had to face them in a grueling seven-game series in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals en route to his first NBA championship.
Since 2008, James has played 25 total postseason games against Pierce, a matchup that has resulted in some of the most memorable playoff battles of all time. But their rivalry actually dates all the way back to LeBron’s rookie season in Cleveland in 2003.
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5. December 13, 2003: Celtics 105, Cavaliers 98
Apparently, all video evidence of this particular game has been destroyed, but this was the birth of the LeBron James vs. Paul Pierce rivalry. The 18-year-old future Rookie Of The Year dropped 37 points, three rebounds and four assists in a losing effort against the Celtics, while the 25-year-old Pierce finished with a ridiculous 41 points, nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks.
According to ESPN, it was during a preseason game at Ohio State the following year in 2004 that the rivalry really took root. Pierce and James had been going at it all game – trading buckets, talking trash, racking up technical fouls – and Pierce would later receive a $15,000 fine for spitting at the Cavaliers’ bench. There were further rumors that they almost came to fisticuffs outside the locker room after the game. Sadly, no video evidence of this particular incident seems to exist either.