BOSTON — After the highlights were shown on the scoreboard and the two former Celtics acknowledged the latest in a series of standing ovations, the cameras panned up to the rafters, where the franchise has hung more banners than any other NBA team.
First shown was the list of retired numbers, where two blank spots should eventually be filled: with Paul Pierce’s No. 34 for certain and probably also the No. 5 that Kevin Garnett wore for his six years in Boston. Then the scoreboard showed the 2008 NBA title banner the two won in their first year together with the Celtics.
“That was our era. No one can ever take that away from us,” Garnett said after the Nets beat the Celtics 85-79 on Sunday night. “I think we will always bleed green as long as we play basketball. We’ll bleed green when we’re six feet under.”
Fans erupted in applause for the two former champions, who were traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer when the Celtics decided it was better to rebuild without them than try for one last run with their aging All-Stars. There was a standing ovation when they came out on the court and another when they were introduced.
But the biggest cheers of all came when the players were recognized with separate scoreboard tributes: Garnett’s during a timeout late in the first quarter and Pierce’s in the break between the first two periods. Each time, the sold-out TD Garden was prepared, going silent in anticipation as soon as the video boards went black.
“This was a good homecoming, man,” Garnett said. “This was over the top. I had lumps in my throat.”
Garnett looked down at first, but eventually his eyes wandered to the video that showed his time in Boston from the press conference heralding the arrival of the New Big Three to his postgame yell after eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals: “Anything is possible!” He waved to the crowd, blew a kiss, thumped his chest and smiled at all of the fuss.
Pierce seemed more emotional, looking up from the bench as his NBA life was replayed on the screen. From the time the Celtics took him 10th overall in the 1998 draft until last summer’s trade, the player known as “The Truth” had spent his entire career in Boston. In addition to the on-court highlights, which included him receiving the ’08 NBA Finals MVP trophy, Pierce’s video had several scenes of him reading to children and working in the community as well as a clip of Jack Nicholson shouting, “You can’t handle the truth.”
The former Celtics captain waved, raised both hands above his head and clapped and mouthed, “Thank you. I love you.” The crowd stood and cheered for the entire time between the first and second quarters, breaking into a chant of “Thank you, Paul Pierce!”
“As long as I’m in the league it’s going to be tough, because I know I’m going to have to come back to the Boston Garden,” Pierce said. “You put so much energy in one spot, and there’s always going to be memories.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he intentionally called a quick play during the breaks so that his players could watch the tributes.
“Not much in my life is bigger than the next possession, but that is,” he said. “The only thing I can say is what I said on the bench, which is that this town gets it. You know that coming in, but you can feel it on nights like tonight. It was a great tribute to both guys, obviously extremely well-deserved.”
The crowd cheered everything Garnett and Pierce did early on, but it fell silent when Garnett stole the ball from Rajon Rondo and lumbered down for a breakaway layup that gave the Nets a five-point lead with 18 seconds left. Garnett finished with six points and three rebounds, and Pierce scored six on 2-for-10 shooting on the familiar parquet floor.
“This was the toughest game I ever had to play. Tougher than any championship game, Game 7. Tough to concentrate on what was at hand,” Pierce said. “You get showered with love the whole game … every second of the game. I’m happy we got it over with and I can go back to playing basketball.”
After the game, the two players stayed on the court to hug their former teammates, coaches and training staff; a few thousand fans, many in Pierce and Garnett jerseys, remained to cheer Pierce when he finally walked off the court, throwing his wristbands into the crowd like he did when he played here.
“There’s no words that could really describe the shower of love here,” he said.
Pierce spent 15 years in Boston, scoring 24,021 points in a Celtics uniform – a total that trails only John Havlicek in the history of the NBA’s most-decorated franchise. A 10-time All-Star, Pierce is also in the team’s top seven in rebounds, assists, steals, games and minutes played.
Garnett came to Boston along with Ray Allen in 2007 to form a Big Three that won it all in their first season together. They returned to the NBA Finals two years later, losing to the Lakers.
But Allen left in 2012 and, with his stars aging and a stacked draft class coming out of college this year, general manager Danny Ainge decided it was time to rebuild. He allowed coach Doc Rivers to go to the Clippers and sent Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn for a package heavy with draft picks.
The Celtics surprised early this season, hovering near .500 and at the top of the woeful Atlantic Division before losses in 17 of their last 20 games has put them back in position for the draft lottery.