MIAMI - Dwyane Wade thought the days of having to go through Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to get to the NBA championship were over. But they're back, in a different uniform, and standing in the way of the Heat's attempt for a three-peat.
"We thought we buried them," Wade said, referring to the Heat outlasting Boston in seven games two years ago en route to its first championship. "Then we got Ray [Allen]. Doc [Rivers] left and we were like, 'Yeah, here they go.' "
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But the Nets acquired Pierce and Garnett from Boston last summer to improve their chances of beating the two-time defending champion Heat and winning a title of their own. They still have a long way to go, but Pierce and Garnett helped the Nets eliminate the Raptors and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time in seven years.
On Tuesday night, they face a rested Heat team that hasn't played for seven days, one that has extra motivation because the Nets swept Miami, 4-0, in the regular season. "No doubt," Wade said. "They figured out a way to beat us four times. So we got to crack their code."
The Nets are much more than Pierce and Garnett, who led Boston to the 2008 NBA championship. But the two showed their championship mettle in Sunday's Game 7 win in Toronto, and their history with the Heat's best players is undeniable.
LeBron James is facing Pierce and Garnett for the fifth time in the last seven postseasons. Some of his individual battles with Pierce have been memorable. James is 2-2 against them, winning both series after teaming with Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
For Wade, it's the fourth time in five years. He's 2-1 in Heat-Celtics series, which have been physical and testy. "It's just a part of playing them," Wade said. "It's part of them being good, us being good, them not liking us for being good, we not liking them for being good.
"When we first started this thing, they were the big bullies on the block and we had to come and try to impose our will. It took us a while to get there, but I think we eventually did. But they got pride as well, and they wouldn't back down."
Wade was effusive in his respect for the Nets and their two future Hall of Famers. James was much more matter of fact, although he looks forward to the individual matchup against Pierce. "I've always wanted to compete against the best in the postseason," James said. "I've always looked at Paul as one of the better guys that we have in our league. He's had the upper edge on me and I've had the upper edge on him. It's another opportunity to see who gets the upper edge."
Wade believes these two teams could have met in the Eastern Conference finals.
"This is going to be a very challenging round," he said. "You wouldn't want it any other way. You want to feel like you've earned . . . your way trying to get to the Finals. I think both teams would want this matchup."