MIAMI LeBron James and Paul Pierce are about as familiar as two opposing players can be this time of year.
When James and the Miami Heat square off against the Captain and his Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight, it will mark the third straight season James and Pierce have met in the playoffs and the fourth time in the last five seasons.
It's the kind of annual get-together that makes it more than just another matchup of talented players.
It plants the seed for a rivalry, something that at least one of James' Miami Heat teammates believes is possible with James and Pierce.
"They've played so many times in the playoffs," said Miami's Dwyane Wade. "They're such good offensive players and good defenders, so they're going to make it tough on each other."
That has certainly been the case when the two have faced off in the playoffs.
When Boston eliminated James (then a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers) during the C's 2008 title run, James averaged 26.7 points but shot just 35.5 percent from the field. Pierce's numbers in the playoffs are a bit down against James-led teams as well.
In their 2008 second round playoff series, Pierce's scoring average dropped slightly (from 19.6 points in the regular season, to 19.4 against the Cavs), but there was a noticeable drop-off in his field goal percent (45.7 during the regular season, down to 40.4 against Cleveland).
The two have met a total of 18 times in the playoffs since 2008, with each walking away victorious nine games.
To further prove just how difficult each has made life for the other in the playoffs, Pierce has shot 40 percent from the field while averaging just 17.6 points in the 18 games against James-led teams.
James, a three-time league MVP, has lit up the C's for 27.1 points per game in the playoffs, but has shot just 41.6 percent from the field in those games. To put that in perspective, James' worst season shooting the ball was his rookie year when he connected on just 41.7 percent of his shots.
"When you play against someone constantly, they become some kind of rival," Wade added.
But most individual rivalries involve a certain amount of disdain or outward dislike for that player and his franchise.
You don't get that between Pierce and James.
Because of that, the Pierce-James duel doesn't necessarily have the same kind of edge or sizzle to it that existed in the 1980s with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, or the C's in their annual postseason duels with the Detroit Pistons.
"It is what it is. You have great teams; we both play on great teams," Pierce said. "It just so happens that we have to face one another. After a while, it just becomes mutual respect for the things he's done in this league, the things I've done in this league. It's a very competitive battle."