One is retired. The other is still at the top of his game, an MVP candidate in the current NBA campaign. Yet the feud between Paul Pierce and LeBron James is far from dead.
They may no longer go head-to-head on the court, but the two all-time greats still seem to have bad blood. This is a rivalry that dates back nearly two decades -- including the years when LeBron’s Heat were jostling with Pierce’s Celtics for East supremacy. With Pierce now working in the media, one of his hot takes recently got LeBron stans fired up. See, Pierce outlined his top five NBA players of all time -- and left Bron Bron off the list! Hoo, boy.
Better wear oven mitts if you’re grabbing that take. So, what’s the background of this feud? That’s what we’re here to answer.
Check out the timeline of the LeBron James and Paul Pierce beef below.
2003: The Spit Incident
After Pierce shared his top five, Kendrick Perkins -- who is boys with both Pierce and Bron -- appeared on ESPN and explained that the list was clearly “personal.” Perk shared one anecdote from way back in the day to illustrate just how far back this personal rivalry stretches. It’s the earliest evidence we can find of any Pierce-James beef.
See, Perk explained that LeBron was getting hyped up by everyone before his rookie season -- he was dubbed the Chosen One -- and played one of his first preseason games against Pierce and the Celtics. Pierce was a man on a mission, attempting to put the young King James in his place.
“Paul is talking big noise to the Cavs bench...Paul actually spits over there at the bench,” Perk explained. “The ultimate disrespect. It ended up turning up. After the game, both teams were meeting in the back. Guys were ready to fight. “Ever since that moment, LeBron James and Paul Pierce hate each other. They don’t speak to each other, even now today.”
2006: Pierce Has Career-High, But Cavs Win
During a Feb. 15, 2006, Cavs-Celtics matchup at TD Garden, Pierce dropped a career-high 50 points. It was the only time in his career he would hit the half-century mark. Yet Cleveland got the last laugh, winning 113-109 in OT.
Pierce was only the fourth Boston player ever to score 50. He was unconscious, dropping 17 in the fourth quarter. But Bron had a great game himself: 43 points, 12 boards, 11 assists and four blocks....and the win.
2008: Pierce, Celtics Best Cavs
In the 2007-08 postseason, LeBron won his first scoring title, but the Cavs had an up-and-down year, earning the No. 4 seed in the East. Nonetheless, they pulled things together in the playoffs. They beat the Wizards, then pushed the revered Celtics all the way to seven games. It was a super competitive, emotionally charged series.
Game 7 was one of the best NBA games in recent memory. In that Boston dub, Pierce had 41 points and LeBron had 45. It turned into an apparent individual battle. The Celtics went on to win the title, with The Truth winning Finals MVP.
2010: Celtics Surprise Cleveland
The Cavs were the No. 1 seed in the East in 2009-10, and they were expected to cruise past No. 4 Boston. But it was not so. The Cavs demolished Boston in Game 3, and Pierce said it was “embarrassing.” The veteran Celtics charged back to win the next three games and claim the series in six. Boston went on to fall to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals. LeBron and an aging Shaquille O’Neal (!) had fallen short of their title goal.
After that season, everything changed. Shaq left Cleveland for Boston, where he played his final NBA season -- but more importantly, LeBron made “The Decision,” announcing he was taking his talents to South Beach. Despite Pierce’s joke about sending the U-Haul to LeBron, he actually only averaged 13.5 PPG in that series, fourth on Boston. Rajon Rondo led the way.
2011: Heat Bounce Celtics
In the 2010 season, Pierce scored his 20,000th career point, becoming only the third player in Celtics history to score 20K all in a Boston uniform. But the season didn’t end on a high note.
After defeating Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, No. 3 Boston faced off with No. 2 Miami and the Big Three. Miami cruised to a five-game win. Boston was actually up 87-82 late in the fourth quarter of the decisive Game 5, but Miami went on a 15-0 run to win the series.
The Heat eventually fell to Dallas in the NBA Finals -- who could forget that existential-crisis-inducing series? -- but LeBron really wanted revenge against Boston, and he got it. He said that matchup was “personal.” That’s because he had established a bit of postseason history with the guys in green.
2012: Ray Allen Leaves Celtics for Heat
Ray Allen was one of the key figures in the Celtics-Heat postseason battles, with the silky smooth jump-shooter and 10-time All-Star helping Boston to the 2008 title. But he also helped Miami to the 2013 title.
Allen rejected a two-year, $12 million offer from Boston in 2012 and chose to take a three-year deal with the Heat -- a deal worth only $3 million per year. Allen basically chose less money and the Big Three over more money and Pierce and Garnett. Pierce and Allen have had ups and downs ever since, and you can bet the move didn’t help Pierce’s opinion of LeBron.
2014: Pierce Demands LeBron Matchup, Gets Torched
In 2013-14, Pierce was playing for the No. 6-seeded Brooklyn Nets when they met No. 2 Miami in the East semis. Before Game 4, Pierce was desperate to draw James as his defensive assignment. He claimed he’d do a better job than anyone else.
That was...probably misguided.
Game 4 was close throughout, but King James went off for a Heat playoff franchise record 49 points and Miami won 102-96. The Heat won the series in five games, with Bron leading his squad in scoring in all five.
2017: LeBron Reflects on Pierce's Career
LeBron and Pierce clearly don’t like each other -- if you haven’t picked up on that theme quite yet, you surely will soon. Yet when Pierce had his swan song in 2017 (he spent his final two seasons with the L.A. Clippers), LeBron had nothing but respectful things to say.
“I think for 19 years, he’s put his mark on this game,” LeBron said when asked about Pierce’s legacy. “Somebody I’ve had a lot of battles with, somebody I’ve always respected and competed against, and pushed me in the Eastern Conference for quite a while.
“A champion and his numbers and what he’s able to do out on the floor speaks for itself, so I would say his next stop is the Hall of Fame and it’s a great ride. A hell of a ride, for sure."
2018: LeBron Spoils Pierce's Jersey Retirement
In February 2018, the Celtics honored Pierce’s impressive career by retiring his jersey. But they probably could’ve picked a better opponent for that game.
The Cavs exploded for 64 points in the first half and crushed Boston, 121-99. LeBron had 24 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds. It wasn’t his biggest game from a statistical perspective, but he controlled the matchup from start to finish, empowering his weakened supporting cast.
2018: Retired Pierce Still Talking Trash
The 2017-18 playoffs marked LeBron’s last go-round with the Cavs (in Round 2 of that relationship). Cleveland was swept by Golden State in the Finals, but before that, the Cavs just squeaked by an upstart Celtics team in seven games in the East finals. Remember Jayson Tatum’s dunk over LeBron, though? That series was amazing.
During Game 7 of that East showdown, as the teams re-entered the court for the start of the fourth quarter, cameras caught Pierce barking at Bron. It wasn’t clear what he said, but it did seem clear LeBron was unbothered.
2019: Pierce Trolls LeBron
Another interesting moment in this rivalry was generated through Pierce’s media involvement in 2019. During a segment called ‘Truth Serum’ on NBA Countdown, Pierce was asked which player was LeBron’s greatest individual rival on the court.
“You got guys like Melo, KD -- [Michelle Beadle], why would you ask me a silly question?” Pierce said. “It’s me, of course. No one has had more playoff battles in more meaningful games than me and LeBron. So how could it be anybody but me?”
It was a fair response. But then it got spicy. “Why do you think he moved to Miami, Beads?” Pierce added. “I sent the U-Haul. I sent the U-Haul down there.”
2020: Pierce Leaves LeBron Out of His Top 5
During Wednesday’s episode of NBA Countdown (ESPN), Pierce shared his top five players: Michael Jordan at No. 1, naturally, followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant.
That’s an elite lineup, of course, but...where’s the love for LeBron, whom many consider to be in the GOAT discussion?
“Bill Russell built up the organization in Boston,” Pierce explained. “He should get way more credit than we give him, a lot of times he’s left out of the conversation. So in saying that, Kareem, look at some of the names I said, Kareem, Magic, Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe, Bird, these guys are all top-10 players who either helped build up their organization or continued the tradition.”
But from Pierce’s perspective, LeBron hasn’t done the same thing. He’s had an easier path. The man hasn’t built!
“He went and put together a team in Miami, and in some ways, he came back to Cleveland to put that team together, and then he went to the Lakers, where a tradition is already made, and we don’t know, that’s to be continued,” Pierce added. Pierce did win his lone NBA championship with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in tow...but that’s none of our business, though.