Paul Pierce arrived at TD Garden a couple hours before game time as he’s done for the last 15 years of his life.
But Sunday was much different.
After sleeping in a downtown Boston hotel Saturday night, Pierce took a team bus to this game and walked in through the back way. Then he took a left – into the visitor’s locker room.
For the first time in his NBA career, Pierce was on the visiting team at the Garden.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find an “opposing” player who got more love than Pierce did from the Boston crowd Sunday night.
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“It was tough; it was tough for me to swallow,” Pierce said of the emotional night. “I was probably about five seconds from shedding [tears], five seconds I’ll admit to it. No words that can really describe the shower of love here.”
Of course, Pierce wasn’t alone. Kevin Garnett also made his return to the Garden for the first time as a visitor since being traded to the Celtics from the Timberwolves before the 2007-08 season.
He too felt the love from the moment he stepped on the court for pregame shoot-around.
Then came the player introductions – where both Pierce and Garnett received long standing ovations.
Later in the first quarter during a time out, Garnett got his video tribute packed with the highlights of his last six seasons on the C’s. With a towel draped over his head, KG watched part of the tribute and saluted the fans who stood and applauded.
"It was just an emotional moment that I just kind of went back and reflected on myself," Garnett said. "When we all got together a lot of people didn’t think that the first year we could do what we did and I think before everyone started getting together making their teams, stacking their teams, I think we were the first to initiate that. We had a lot of pressure on us. As I sat back and watched the video, I thought a lot about the fun, how much work was invested in that.”
Then came Pierce’s tribute. Fifteen seasons worth of highlights makes for quite a tribute, and that’s exactly what it was. Played to the song “Coming Home” by P. Diddy ft. Skylar Grey, Pierce watched in awe and with a smile from ear-to-ear, all while trying to fight back the tears (successfully). He made sure to tell the fans he loved them during the emotional moment.
“Just all the great moments,” Pierce said when asked about his video tribute. “From on the court to on the court, just all the great moments that’s all you can think of. That’s pretty much what the videos showed, just everything, just me being in the community, the difference I was able to make not only on the court but in the community … I have relationships with organizations in the community that I built, been able to change different lives, being and inspiration in this community and a lot of that you thought about.”
Both Pierce and Garnett said how hard this game was for them to play, and taking a look at the final score – an 85-79 Nets win – you can probably gather that the level of basketball wasn’t up to par with NBA standards for most of the game.
“I was telling Kevin [Garnett] and everybody this was the toughest game I ever had to play,” Pierce said. “Tougher than any championship game, or any Game 7. This game was just really hard to focus and concentrate on what was at hand.”
But on this night, the outcome wasn’t so much the important part. It was all about celebrating two players who helped turn this Celtics franchise around and make it a franchise that players want to play on again and fans want to cheer for again.
“The only thing I could say is what I said on the bench, and that is, ‘This town gets it.’” C's head coach Brad Stevens said. “You know, this town is special and you can see why. And all the people that have gotten a chance to play here and that you talk to, whether they played here for a year or whether they played here for 15 years, all talk about how special it is. And you know that coming in, but you can feel it on nights like tonight. And it was really a great tribute to both guys, obviously extremely well-deserved.”
And although Pierce and Garnett came in wearing Nets jerseys, deep down they’re still lifelong Celtics. That will never change. It’s become a part of their identity. Garnett made that very clear after the game.
“Its’ always gonna be what it is,” Garnett said. “I think well always bleed green as long as we’re playing basketball and as long as we’re living. Even when they bury us six feet [under], this is what it’s gonna be.”