Stage Is Set For Friday Showdown

Pierce and James renew their rivalry Friday at the FleetCenter.
photo: NBAE/Getty Images

The stage is set on Friday night at the FleetCenter for two of the league's top superstars to go head-to-head in what is becoming one of the newest rivalries in the NBA when Paul Pierce and the Celtics take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. After just four regular season meetings, it has become clear that LeBron James and Paul Pierce have a budding rivalry that could be one of the Eastern Conference's top match-ups.

A large part of what fuels the rivalry between these two players, and consequently between these two Eastern Conference teams, is that Pierce and James have taken far different paths to NBA glory.

James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, and was selected with the top pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, immediately becoming one of the league's biggest stars. Pierce has had to fight for every bit of recognition he has received since entering the league, which itself was an obstacle that included a draft night slide after once being considered a top pick.

James entered the league last season touted as a cross between being "the next Michael Jordan" and "the next Magic Johnson." Although those are two tough pairs of sneakers to fill, James has come through with flying colors, averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 boards and 5.9 assists on his way to winning Rookie of the Year Honors. Pundits immediately praised "King James," and fans worldwide have embraced him with open arms.

Pierce has fought his way to the top of the NBA. The L.A. native played his college ball at Kansas, partly because the hometown UCLA Bruins recruited Baron Davis. After an All-American career at KU, Pierce was widely considered a top-three draft pick, but slipped all the way to the Celtics at the tenth position after several scouts raised concerns. Being overlooked fueled Pierce's competitive nature, and he has worked tirelessly to turn himself into a three-time All-Star and one of the league's top playoff performers. Although Pierce is currently well on his way to being considered among the great players in the history of the Celtics, these early oversights in his career make him go that much harder at the new crop of superstars, making sure they earn their place in the league.

The first meeting between Pierce and James wasn't much to write home about, as the Celtics defeated Cleveland 91-82 early last season in Boston. But on December 13, 2003 the first signs of a long rivalry became evident when Pierce and James matched each other basket for basket as the Celtics pulled out a close win in Cleveland.

Pierce went off for a season-high 41 points, while James poured in what was then a career-high 37. The two went at each other several times down the stretch, almost as if they were playing their own personal game of one-on-one, with Pierce swiping the ball from James late in the game to ice the victory.

"He was getting a lot of calls and I thought if I had a chance to guard him that it would give either one of us the benefit of the doubt and just let two of the best players on their teams play," said Pierce following the game.

It is this type of respect and competitive spirit that this early rivalry is based on. Both Pierce and James have a desire to guard each other down the stretch to ensure that they are the ones who decide the outcome. And most of all, they both want to win.

"Someday I'll be a superstar in this league (like Pierce)," said James following that same December meeting. "To go against a guy like that, who's an All-Star... that was fun out there."

Pierce and James went head-to-head two more times last season with James finally notching his first win over Pierce in their final meeting, a 97-89 win in Cleveland. But Pierce and the Celtics won when it mattered most - beating out the Cavs for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot by just one game and leaving a sour taste in James' mouth.

Fast-forward to this season, and Pierce has a new coach, some young up-and-coming teammates of his own and a new point guard to take some pressure off him. James reached "superstar" status last year, and now, with one complete NBA season under his belt, has a team that many perceive is ready to make "the leap" into the playoffs, and possibly be considered among the league's elite.

The stakes couldn't be higher, as both teams are looking to make waves in the Eastern Conference. And although it is only late November and there is still plenty of basketball to play this season, both teams are already thinking towards the playoffs, and a possible post-season match-up. The Celtics have as good a chance as anyone to win the Atlantic Division, which, with realignment, would earn them the #3 seed and home court advantage in the first round. The Cavaliers could easily wind up as the #6 seed, matching Pierce and James for a primetime playoff showdown in front of the entire league.

The playoffs are still a few months away, but fans can get their first taste of Pierce and LeBron on Friday night at the FleetCenter, when the Celtics and Cavs meet for the first time this season, continuing one of the newest rivalries in the NBA.

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