Former Celtics guard Aaron Nesmith on Wednesday returned to TD Garden for the first time since being traded to the Pacers in July. Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, who spent his first three years with the Celtics before joining the Knicks in 1987, said a player’s first road game against the team that drafted him can be “crazy.” But his memories of coming back with the Knicks were superseded by a later return.
On Jan. 18, 1998, the Pacers came to Boston to face the Celtics. Carlisle was an Indiana assistant and Celtics legend Larry Bird was the first-year head coach. It was Bird’s first game on the Garden parquet since retiring in 1992.
“That was a moment before the game, with the crowd reaction to him and everything,” Carlisle said. “It was reverential.”
The Pacers had a veteran team led by Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, and Rik Smits, and Carlisle said they quickly realized what the moment meant to the ultra-competitive Bird.
“I looked at the faces of our guys as all this was going on and they just got more and more serious,” Carlisle said. “They understood that it was virtually a must-win game with everything that was going on. It was an experience where I think our team, which had been playing pretty well during the year, actually took maybe another step up from being in that kind of moment.”
The Pacers won, 103-96, and went on to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in seven games. Carlisle has come back to Boston countless times since then, of course, and he said it remains a meaningful stop.
“Boston is a very, very special place,” he said. “This team is one of the very best in the world. I’m also aware of the year the Bruins are having here, and I know about Boston sports fans. They are among the very best anywhere. And this time I came back and there’s a new visitor’s locker room. It appears welcoming, at least, when you walk in.”
The Celtics acquired Malcolm Brogdon from the Pacers in the deal that sent Nesmith to Indiana in July. Carlisle coached him with the Pacers last season, when he led the team in scoring, and suggested that Brogdon’s reserve role with the Celtics is a good indication of the team’s unusual depth.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Carlisle said. “To me, there’s a small group of players that can pretty much do anything on a basketball floor. He can play point, he can play 2, he can play 3, he can guard any position on the floor because he’s strong and extremely intelligent.
“This is a perfect situation for the Celtics and for him. He’s an elite player off the bench in this league. Really. It’s like having a sixth starting player. They’re very fortunate.”
On the shelf
Celtics guard Marcus Smart missed Wednesday’s game due to a non-COVID illness. Payton Pritchard replaced Smart in the starting lineup.