"I think a lot of it is really misunderstood," Pierce said Thursday. "If I see LeBron walking down the street, it's not going to be no fistfight. I've got a lot of respect for him. It's like fighting for the same girl. How am I going to be cool with that guy? I've got total respect for him as a person. It's just the thing we go through on the court."
While their team uniforms may have changed over the years, Pierce admits James remains the player in the league he most measures himself against.
Now in his 17th season and first with the Wizards, Pierce's role is to provide veteran experience and late-game production for a Washington team that hopes to build off last season's trip to the second round of the playoffs. James returned to Cleveland last summer in free agency after spending the previous four years in Miami, where he led the Heat to four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships.
Pierce and James have had a history of run-ins, and they faced each other five times in the playoffs over a span of seven seasons. That includes last season, when the Heat defeated Brooklyn in the second round and ended Pierce's one-season run with the Nets.
The rivalry between the two, Pierce said, is more professional than personal, although there was speculation that the two have had heated exchanges on and off the court over the years. James is 3-2 in playoff series against Pierce, who had success earlier in the matchup while with Boston but was unable to get past James during his stint with the Heat.
"It's just the competitive nature of both of us being at the same position, being on the top teams, gunning for the same trophy year in and year out, and that's where that comes into play," Pierce said after the Wizards' practice at the Verizon Center. "It's just something about great players when they play in certain arenas or against other great players. They elevate their play. LeBron is one of those guys. He feels the moment. He understands the moment. And this could be a moment tomorrow."
James, a four-time league MVP, has credited Pierce in recent years for challenging him to raise his level of play, particularly in the playoffs.
"I've always wanted to compete against the best in the postseason, and I've always looked at Paul as one of the better guys we have in our league," James said last spring. "He's had the upper edge on me. I've had the upper edge on him. It's big time to go against a Hall of Famer, especially in the playoffs."
The season is only a month old, but Pierce expects Friday's game to have a playoff atmosphere. The Cavaliers (5-5) have gotten off to a turbulent start but are considered a favorite, slightly ahead of Chicago, to win the East. The Wizards (7-3) are among those hoping to send a message early that the conference is far more than a two-team race this season.
Pierce said he was surprised to see James walk away from the Heat after the success he had in Miami, which ended with a lopsided loss last season to San Antonio in the Finals.
"I thought with the run they had in Miami, going to four straight Finals, that it wouldn't deter him, losing in the Finals," Pierce said. "I thought they built something special there. Obviously, Cleveland has a special place in his heart, and he felt like he left something behind.
"But that's good for him and good for the game. It also shifts the balance of power. We all know how tough it is to put together a team and try to win a championship in that first year, which makes the Eastern Conference that much wide open."