Before Shelden Williams shoved Mo Williams to the floor following the halftime buzzer in Wednesday's preseason finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers, an unspoken tension hung in the air between the two teams. It might stem from both arguably being the Eastern Conference's top two teams or it might be because they kick off the NBA season on Tuesday. Either way, this hardly seemed like any other preseason game.
That thought was compounded by Paul Pierce electing to participate in the action. It was reported in the days prior that Doc Rivers would be sitting his stars (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen actually followed Doc's orders), but Pierce, being the player he is, clearly wanted a shot at James and the Cavs.
So, while an unspoken tension bubbled between the two squads, an equally powerful rigidity enveloped Pierce and James throughout the entire first quarter. Paul was clearly locked in on Wednesday, as evidenced by the meticulous scowl that he wore on his face throughout the period. There were no smiles or pre-game laughs or that sense of looseness that comes with preseason. This was all business.
Pierce's demeanor Wednesday could not have been more different from what we saw the night before in New York. He was smiling, coasting somewhat and laughing in disbelief at some of the calls the officials were making. Against the Cavaliers there was no sympathy for a bad call, but rather a distinct sense of frustration and disappointment, as if not receiving that call took away a chance for Pierce to best James.
While the battle between the two teams will be all that shows up in the box score, the private war Pierce and James were engaged in was difficult to ignore. They bumped each other, prodded each other and fouled each other. They seemed to be trying to match each other shot for shot. Pierce would shoot a three and then LeBron would launch one from deep. LeBron would throw up a mid range fade away and Pierce would do the same on his end. They of course guarded each other, which only bolstered the sense of competition between the two of them.
By the end of the quarter, Pierce had taken six shots and James had taken six shots. Pierce made four of his, while LeBron hit just two. Pierce finished with 11 points and James ended the frame with seven (he knocked down three free throws as well). While the numbers don't mean all that much, that sense of wanting to show up the other (in preseason nonetheless) surely does. And what can we ultimately take from this first quarter display of NBA macho-ism? That when these two teams meet for real four times this season, they surely will not be events to be taken lightly.