Throngs of fans wearing No. 34 and No. 5 Celtics jerseys smashed together near the tunnel where visiting teams run onto TD Garden’s parquet floor. They leaned over the railings, a tangle of arms and legs, all hoping to be among the first to say thank you and welcome back.
The first standing ovation occurred well before tipoff Sunday, when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett sprinted through that tunnel for the first time in their career to warm up, this after Pierce spent about 35 minutes in the Celtics’ training room, because old habits are hard to break.
They stood side by side as a young girl beautifully sang the national anthem, interrupted only by fans screaming, “Thank you, Paul!” or “Thank you, Kevin!” A “Paul Pierce” chant soon broke out, starting in the balcony before working its way down through the sellout crowd of 18,624.
They were the last two players announced in Brooklyn’s starting lineup. First came Garnett, and public address announcer Eddie Palladino began to introduce him loud and deep and strong, just like old times, but the crowd went wild, drowning out the introduction, standing and cheering.
The cheers, roars, and “thank yous” continued, and then Pierce was introduced, again to a long, deep, and strong introduction from Palladino that could hardly be heard over a delirious crowd.
Pierce walked to the scorer’s table and shook hands with old friends who were there during his 15 seasons in Boston. Garnett clapped talcum powder in his hands, nudged his old teammate Rajon Rondo, then, after pounding his head against the support beneath the opposing basket, Garnett pounded his heart, saluted the fans, and acknowledged the officials, his routine for all six of his seasons as a Celtic.
There still was a game to be played, the first for Pierce and Garnett in Boston since the Celtics icons were traded last summer. But the game was brutal.
The Celtics struggled to reach 17 points by the end of the first quarter, and by then the Nets had only 11. Hideous play continued for most of the night, until the fourth quarter.
After trailing by as many as 12 points, Rondo hit a 3-pointer with 1:03 left to pull the Celtics within 3.
But on the Celtics’ next possession, Rondo (13 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) made a bad pass that Garnett stole and took the length of the court, albeit without much speed, for a layup. “It took me two days to get the layup up,” Garnett said. “I thought I was going to be caught from behind.”
The Nets held on, winning, 85-79, as they improved to an NBA-best 10-1 in January. Pierce and Garnett each scored 6 points, but did nothing spectacular.
The Celtics (15-31) have lost 17 of their last 20 games.
The game was bad enough that they could have instead called it off and played the video tributes for Pierce and Garnett over and over and no one would have complained.
Garnett’s tribute came first, near the end of the first quarter. He watched with a smile, clearly overwhelmed, and the Celtics watched too, as coach Brad Stevens hurried his timeout because he felt it appropriate that they honor those icons in that moment, too.
“This town is special,” Stevens said, “and you can see why.”
A roar built through the crowd as it played on, ending with a thank you note from the Celtics, and the camera panned to Garnett for a long ovation. He saluted the fans and blew a kiss.
“I had lumps in my throat and I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it, but, man, this was over the top,” he said later. “I couldn’t put that into words.”
Pierce was recognized at the end of the quarter, and the tribute opened with the song “Coming Home,” before clips dating to when he was drafted by the Celtics in 1998 began to play.
The chants, cheers, and applause were loud enough to blow the roof off the Garden. The standing ovation lasted minutes that seemed to stretch into eternity. Pierce watched and smiled and mouthed to the fans, “Thank you, I love you” over and over. He took a bow, twice.
“I was telling Kevin and everybody this was the toughest game I ever had to play. Tougher than any championship game, or any Game 7,” Pierce said. “You look up and see so many Kevin jerseys, my jerseys, posters, and it’s every second you are on the bench and in the game people were calling your name. I’m happy we got it over with and I can go back to playing basketball right now.”
Before the game, they hugged Celtics employees, and afterward they credited so many of them in a 16-minute news conference in which Pierce and Garnett sat side by side, trying to capture in words one of the most emotional nights of their lives.
“What comes to mind is unbelievable,” Garnett said. “I didn’t expect anything like that for myself.”
Pierce described not being able to sleep the night before, being in a downtown hotel when he was used to being at his house outside of the city. Then he entered the arena through the visitors’ entrance, and turned left to enter the visitors’ locker room instead of turning right, to the Celtics’.
“Everything was so different,” Pierce said.
They had fought tears all night, but they each said it was a struggle.
Garnett: “People always say players can be too loyal. I don’t believe that. A city like Boston is worth it and tonight’s the epitome of all that.”
Pierce: “No words that can really describe the shower of love here.”
Garnett: “I think we will always bleed green. As long as we’re playing basketball, as long as we’re living, even when we’re buried 6 feet [under]. That’s just what it’s going to be.”
And Pierce had one last message for all the fans, the same message that Garnett wanted to send and one that both players had heard all night, over and over and over: “Thank you.”