Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will feel a little nostalgic when they see their old coach Doc Rivers Saturday night. None of the three wear Celtic green any longer, but their close friendship – along with the memories of the 2008 championship they won together – have hardly faded.
For Pierce and Garnett, now first-year members of the Brooklyn Nets, this is the first time they'll face Rivers – now coach of the Los Angeles Clippers – since they all left Boston.
"It's going to be weird looking over to the sideline and not taking instruction from him," Pierce told Yahoo Sports. "He probably knows all of our strengths and weaknesses."
Pierce played under Rivers since 2004 when Rivers was hired as Celtics coach. The addition of Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 further transformed the franchise, launching a stretch that saw Celtics win the '08 title and again reach the NBA Finals two years later.
"I really grew to the player I've become and really matured under him through good and bad," Pierce said. "Because of him, I'm the player I am."
Garnett had been a perennial All-Star and the 2004 MVP with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But it wasn't until he joined the Celtics and Rivers that he won a championship. Under Rivers, Garnett said, he "learned how to be a man, how to speak and how to communicate better than when I came in."
"He gave us confidence we can do everything," Garnett said. "Although he is well spoken and comes across really intellectual, Doc's a beast, Doc's an animal. There is nothing soft about him. He pushed us every day."
From coach to players, the Celtics developed lasting ties across those seasons.
"When you win a NBA championship and when you go through the struggles you must go through together, you're bonded for life," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "It's like having a blood transfusion.
"I'm not sure what they got from me, but I gained so much because I was lucky enough to coach them."
Garnett, Pierce and Allen knew when they hit their mid 30s their time in Boston was nearing an end. Allen signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent in 2012. The Celtics had serious discussions about trading Garnett to the Los Angeles Clippers last season. They kept him, but losing in the first round of the playoffs further validated management's thought it was time for change.
"The writing was on the wall," Garnett said. "We all knew what the story was. I think Ray Allen said it best, 'None of us wanted to leave.' I always wanted to leave out in green."
Garnett, who owns a no-trade clause in his contract, said another trade to the Clippers that included himself and Rivers was seriously talked about in the offseason. There was also talk of the Celtics waiving Pierce, who could then be free to sign with his hometown Clippers. Ultimately, the Clippers acquired only Rivers for an unprotected first-round pick.
"I actually thought I was going to L.A., to be honest," Garnett said. "I thought [Rivers], I and Paul were going."
Said Pierce: "At one point we thought we would all be in L.A."
The Celtics agreed on draft night to send Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn in a nine-player, three-pick swap. The deal became official July 12, ending Pierce's 15-year career in Boston and Garnett's successful six-year tenure. Departing was easier with Rivers gone.
"Eventually it was going to happen," Pierce said. "We knew eventually guys would go their separate ways, whether it was retirement or to another city."
The Celtics hired Butler University coach Brad Stevens to replace Rivers. Would Pierce and Garnett have been happy being coached by Stevens?
"It wasn't the first choice," Garnett said. "It wasn't likely. … But I'm a chameleon. If I had to be in Boston for my last years without Doc, that probably would have been my last year of playing. More importantly, I hate to lose or be in that position."
Said Pierce: "It probably would have been really difficult."
Rivers has had a smooth transition. The Nets have started slowly under first-time head coach Jason Kidd. Even so, Garnett said he is confident the Nets will improve.
"It's a great situation here," he said.
Garnett and Pierce have been in touch regularly with Rivers since they all left Boston, but haven't spent quality time together. The back-to-back road games won't allow Garnett and Pierce much time to visit with Rivers on Saturday, either.
"We still stay in touch," Pierce said. "We still text back and forth. We can hang out next summer because I usually train at the Clippers' facility during the summertime. Maybe when I'm retired he can give me a job."