A slow-boiling skirmish that began as a pre-game war of words over past slights — or, if you prefer, perhaps as far back as 2003 — got briefly but unmistakably physical early in the first quarter of Thursday's nationally televised preseason matchup between the two-time defending NBA kingpins Miami Heat and a reloaded Brooklyn Nets team with designs on challenging the champs for Eastern Conference supremacy this season.
We pick it up late in the first quarter, well after Nets head coach Jason Kidd had watched his old New Jersey No. 5 raised to the Barclays Center's rafters. With 6:50 left in the first quarter and the team teams tied at nine, LeBron James picked up a loose ball near his own basket and darted down the left sideline toward the Nets' goal. Teammate Mario Chalmers, apparently feeling better, ran the opposite wing, but James' intent on attacking the rim was clear, especially to new-look Net and frequent James foil Paul Pierce, who briefly backtracked before ...
... body-checking the four-time MVP clear of the key and picking up a foul that seemed to have much more in common with a playoff face-off than a preseason one.
Given the exhibition nature of the contest, which Brooklyn went on to win handily, you might be reluctant to read too much into a first-quarter collision, even one between longtime rivals who have experienced more than their fair share of postseason conflict. From Pierce's perspective, though, you'd be wrong to gloss; the former Boston Celtics captain said after the game he was absolutely acting with intent, according to Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York:
“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.”
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:
“We’re trying to install that here,” 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.
“They’re the champs, they’ve got what we want, and we have to go through them to get it. We’ve got to just help everybody understand that it’s not going to be easy, and we’ve got to win.”
They did just that on Thursday, albeit in a game that saw Miami play without Dwyane Wade, Chris Andersen and Ray Allen, whose free-agent move to Miami in the summer of 2012 sparked beef with his former Celtics teammates and inspired questions of hypocrisy from the likes of LeBron earlier this week.
Kevin Garnett offered a characteristically terse reply to James' comments, according to Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press: "Tell LeBron worry about Miami. He has nothing to do with Celtic business."
Nor, now, do Pierce, Garnett and teammate Jason Terry, who made their own move south in a draft-night deal that reshaped two franchises. These days, their business is Nets business. And by the sound of things, when it comes to the Heat — against whom the Nets will open regular-season play at Barclays on Nov. 1 — that business will remain very personal.
Video via Devin Kharpertian at The Brooklyn Game.
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