“I thought the fans were . . . ”
And then Doc Rivers paused. He paused for nearly 10 full, difficult seconds, his lips quivering, his eyes welling with tears, his next words caught somewhere deep in his throat.
He had been fighting tears for most of Wednesday night. He fought as he watched the tribute video on the TD Garden JumboTron at the end of the first quarter, as the fans rose to their feet, nary a soul in their seat, everyone applauding, thanking him, their cheers loud, deafening.
He fought when he waved to the crowd after the video had finished, when the standing ovation and cheers reached peak volume, drowning out any boos, if there were any. And just then, in need of a distraction, Rivers turned to try to focus on his job, coaching the Los Angeles Clippers.
But after the game and after his Clippers had beaten the Celtics, 96-88, in his first game back in Boston since he left his post as the Celtics’ coach this summer, Rivers struggled to fight those tears off anymore.
And after those nearly 10 full, difficult seconds that seemed to last minutes, the teary-eyed coach who spent nine years as the Celtics’ coach, who helped raise the 17th banner in the illustrious franchise’s history, gathered himself for a moment.
“It was just a really nice day,” he said, his voice still breaking, every word a struggle.
“This is, it’s just such a classy place here, and so it was, um . . . ”
Again, his emotions overwhelmed him, and he was forced to pause to regain his composure.
“It was really nice when I walked out and, you know I’m not used to walking out on that side, and all those guys, the people, they lined up and I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game, I thought.
“That was just nice. It didn’t surprise me because that’s just the way — you’ve got to live here to understand that — that’s just the way they are. It’s an amazing fan base. It really is. And I just want everything to go well for them.”
But there is a balance there, wanting the best for those fans while trying to win the game against their team. Rivers said it was hard, because every time one of his former players would inbound the ball near him, they’d talk, and Rivers couldn’t keep his focus, as it felt like old times.
“I told my coaches, I needed halftime far more than the players,” Rivers said. “And I think they sensed that, I will say that. You could see at halftime, [Chris Paul] was like, ‘We got it. We got it.’ He kept saying that. So I think they sensed that a little bit for me.”
Indeed, his players handled it. Paul scored 22 points, added 9 assists and 7 rebounds, and Clippers reserve guard Jamal Crawford scored 21 points, including a pair of 3-pointers in the final three minutes that sealed their win, improving their record to 15-8.
It was the Celtics’ second straight loss, though they still sit atop the Atlantic Division with a 10-14 record, and their players downplayed the emotional element afterward.
“It was just a basketball game,” said Jared Sullinger. “No emotional attachment.’’
Said Jeff Green, who scored a game-high 29 points, “There wasn’t any emotion. We just tried to win the game. Plain and simple.”
Brandon Bass added 17 points and 12 rebounds, but the Celtics were outscored by 18 in the paint and by 12 in second-chance points.
The most emotional moment came, of course, when the video played, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who was hired to replace Rivers, was among those standing and applauding, as were several of his players.
“I respect a good coach and I’m appreciative to the opportunity that I have and I’m appreciative of the time that he spent here,” Stevens said.
“I’m appreciative of the good times he had and I’m appreciative of the tough ones he had that built to those good times. I don’t know him very well, but I admire what he’s accomplished and everyone else was up and I should have been up, too.”
It marked the second straight reunion game for the Celtics, who played former teammates Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and the Brooklyn Nets Tuesday night, a game the Nets won.
In Tuesday’s game and in the one a day later, the Celtics were simply playing a team with far more talent.
“We’ve played very talented teams and those types of teams you have to play an almost perfect game,” said veteran Celtics swingman Gerald Wallace. “You’ve got to come out and execute, you’ve got to stick to your game plan, and we didn’t do that.”
Rivers had spent the last day and a half in Boston seeing old friends, having meals, and catching up. When he entered the Garden for shootaround Wednesday morning, he stopped to shake hands and hug local reporters who covered him.
A few hours later, before the game began, he paused nearly every five steps to greet almost everyone, ranging from security guards to Celtics employees and others.
After the game, Rivers shook Stevens’s hand and chatted with some of his former assistant coaches and with Rajon Rondo. He later talked to Stevens in a hallway, no doubt passing along advice, even though he said Stevens doesn’t need much.
“Brad’s going to be a terrific coach and he’s going to be here a long time,” Rivers said.
At one point during his emotional postgame news conference, after he had been fighting off those tears while trying to describe the night, Rivers joked, “Can we talk about basketball?”
But a couple questions before that, Rivers was asked if it was too late to change his mind about leaving Boston, and he laughed.
“I tell you, boy, this is such a neat place,” he said. “I tell people all the time — people don’t get Boston, they really don’t. They don’t understand. And I think you have to be part of it to get it. I really do. I don’t think you can get it from the outside.
“It’s just a special, different place, and people were born here and raised here and they cheer for their teams, and they love their athletes. And it’s just a great place to be.
“The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago, when I decided to come. That was the best decision I ever made.”
Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org