From the second the trade went down — well, from the second we finished processing our shock at the draft-night deal, at least — we found ourselves wondering how Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett returning to the TD Garden as members of the Brooklyn Nets might shake out. You knew that the Celtics would handle it with class — the organization thanked the two star players for their service on the way out the door, and Boston's game operations and event presentation crew takes honoring former Celtics very seriously. (Just ask Doc Rivers.)
Still, though, you wondered. Pierce sits alongside the likes of Larry Bird and John Havlicek at or near the top of virtually every category in the Celtics' record book after 15 years in Boston. Garnett's addition before the 2007-08 season completely transformed and revitalized the Celtics franchise. The two played integral roles in leading Boston to its 17th NBA championship (and to within a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter of an 18th). Considering all that these two particular players had meant to the Celtics, you had to wonder what the moment of their reintroduction in unfamiliar Brooklyn black-and-white would look like, would sound like, and would feel like.
As we learned on Sunday night, the answer was, "Appropriately overwhelming."
The ovations began well before tipoff, as Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe noted, but they were particularly pitched during the Nets' player introductions:
The positive vibes persisted through a timeout on the floor at the 2:25 mark of the first quarter, when the Celtics unveiled a video tribute to Garnett, who made five All-Star teams and four All-Defensive teams in his six years in Boston, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in helping lead the Celtics to a 66-16 record and that 17th banner during the '07-'08 campaign:
Following a lengthy ovation and "KG" chant to honor Garnett, the crowd got back to the business of rooting for Boston to beat Brooklyn ... but only briefly. After the end of a first quarter that saw the Celtics hold a 17-11 advantage over the visiting Nets, the Celtics unveiled their tribute for Pierce, the sweet-scoring swingman selected out of Kansas with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft who went on to become one of the most decorated and revered Celtics of all time:
Well done, Celtics. Well done, Celtics fans.
And, of course, well done, KG. Your moment of all-in-good-fun trash talk with former teammate, close friend and "little brother" Rajon Rondo — as captured by our friends at the Yahoo Sports Minute — was pitch-perfect and wonderful to watch:
Somewhere, in and around all the emotionally resonant moments, the Nets and Celtics found time to play a basketball game. (Not a particularly clean one, though — the two teams combined to shoot 38.6 percent from the floor and 25.5 percent from 3-point range on the evening.) Brooklyn came back from their season-worst 11-point first quarter to wrest control of the game thanks to strong defense of its own, some needed off-the-bench pop from Andray Blatche (17 points, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 25 minutes) and big fourth-quarter contributions from Andrei Kirilenko (seven of his 11 points in the final frame) and Deron Williams (who finished with seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 34 1/2 minutes).
Brooklyn couldn't pull away until the final 30 seconds, though, and — fittingly enough — it was Garnett who authored the defensive stand his team needed, jumping a passing lane to pick off Rondo before racing down the parquet for a run-out finish that sealed matters:
Neither ex-Celtic posted the sort of gaudy stat lines Bostonians remember so fondly — Garnett finished with six points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals in 23 minutes, while Pierce struggled to six points on 2 for 10 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes — but they came out on the winning end of an 85-79 affair that was about a lot more than Brooklyn drawing within 1 1/2 games of first place in the Atlantic Division or Brad Stevens' Celtics losing for the 17th time in 20 games.
Here's my favorite piece of a phenomenal column (the whole of which I strongly suggest you read) by SB Nation's Paul Flannery:
The Celtics have had better eras to be sure. They've had better players, although not as many as you might think. But few teams made as much of a mark on a city as those Celtics. They reflected all those things that Bostonians see in themselves in that they stuck together and didn't give a damn about anyone else.
And here's my favorite piece of a phenomenal column (ditto) by Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski:
This was one of the best nights you'll ever witness in sports. There's less and less left of this kind of connection, this kind of bond between ball players and cities. In these cynical and transient sports times, here was a night to believe in the power of these sporting relationships. "This was the toughest game I've ever had to play," Pierce confessed. "Tougher than any championship game, tougher than any Game 7."
After watching on a television in Milwaukee Sunday night, Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports, "It was incredible. I have no idea how they're playing. The coolest part of the night was when they showed the lady crying in the crowd. Well, that lady was JoJo White's wife. It exemplifies what that franchise is about: a family."
Beyond the two trips to the NBA Finals — beyond the 2008 championship — perhaps the reason this city so fiercely loves these players is the way these players so fiercely loved this city, this franchise, the way they so deeply cherished its lore and history.
"People always say players can be too loyal, but I don't believe that," Garnett said. "A city like Boston is worth it."
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