NEW YORK — Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are correct on this one. The only emotion left between those former members of the Big Three facing their old team will be when they come to TD Garden Jan. 26.
Both Pierce and Garnett and the Celtics have moved on, as evidenced by the tepid reaction following the Nets’ 104-96 win Tuesday night over the never-quit Celtics at Barclays Center.
The Celtics’ roster this season is unrecognizable to Garnett. He looked down the Boston bench and saw younger players he barely knew and Rajon Rondo in street clothes — rather fashionable ones, of course — and gave him a hug following a timeout.
Perhaps if the Nets were streaking, off to the type of start expected when general manager Billy King mortgaged the future for now in the trade with the Celtics, then the emotion would have been more tangible. But the Nets are a desperate team. They were playing with their projected starting five healthy for the first time since Nov. 15.
Deron Williams had missed 11 of his previous 12 games with a sprained left ankle before returning Tuesday night and Pierce returned after a four-game absence because of a fractured bone in his right hand. The Nets began the night having lost 14 of their first 20 games, and new coach Jason Kidd had been heavily criticized for his game-planning and lack of preparation. He then became embroiled in power struggle with assistant Lawrence Frank, who has now been relegated to writing “game reports,” as if this were the eighth grade.
So the Brooklyn focus was hardly on a reunion, and the Nets locked in on victory in one of their best performances of the season. Garnett had 11 points and nine rebounds in a spirited but rather eye-opening effort. He missed open jumpers. He was blocked twice on a putback by Brandon Bass, and then was blocked again by Gerald Wallace on a putback before drawing a foul.
Garnett showed emotion to motivate his teammates, but he was rather polite to his opponents.
“Kevin said, ‘What’s up?’ which normally doesn’t really happen,” Celtics second-year forward Jared Sullinger said. “He was talking to me, asking me how my back was. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was Kevin. I guess we’re special.”
Garnett has bigger concerns than demeaning adversaries. The Nets are hardly a threat in the Eastern Conference at this point, not exactly causing the Heat or Pacers to blink. Doc Rivers always had the leadership and guidance departments handled in Boston, but in Brooklyn Garnett is trying to serve as a mentor for his teammates and show loyalty to Kidd.
The only similarity between the Celtics now and the Celtics of Garnett is the green.
“Because Doc ain’t over there it’s probably a little less emotional,” Garnett said. “You don’t see Danny [Ainge] sitting on the side; you don’t see Paul Pierce over there, Ray Allen, Eddie House, Baby [Glen Davis]. I see Rajon over there, which makes it a little more emotional at times. Obviously I went to battle with BB [Bass] and a lot of those guys. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, those are real solid guys that I know on that team. Other than that, it was another night in the office.
“It will always be a special place in my heart when I face the Green. I’ll always have an affiliation with that.”
As for Pierce, he is grappling with the possibility of coming off the bench permanently. Kidd is proving more elusive answering questions as a coach than he ever was as a point guard, and he danced around the Pierce-to-the-bench question Monday at practice. A day later, he decided to bring Pierce off the pine for the first time in nearly seven years so he could become accustomed to the protective glove on his right hand.
Pierce played 22 minutes and missed all three of his shot attempts but scored 4 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 turnovers. He played distributor, appearing content with blending in as a complement to Williams and Brook Lopez.
“I mean, like I said, I was already past that,” Pierce said of playing the Celtics. “My whole focus was about getting back healthy, coming out trying to help my team, establishing something at home. It just happens to be a coincidence that the day I come back is against the Celtics. It will probably be a little bit more emotional when I go back to Boston.”
For now, the Celtics and Nets can go back to their respective lives. The Celtics have another reunion, this one with Rivers, Wednesday night at TD Garden, and the Nets will try to make it three in a row Thursday night against Rivers and the Clippers.
What both sides proved Tuesday night was that they are moving forward. Pierce and Garnett realize that part of their reputations and legacies are riding on what occurs this season, while the Celtics are trying to establish their own identity under Brad Stevens. The Celtics proved themselves formidable opponents in the Atlantic Division for the Nets, and the fact that they had Brooklyn scrambling until the waning minutes for the victory wasn’t lost on the players.
Afterward, those who played with Pierce and Garnett said their farewells and focused on Wednesday night. Eventually the Celtics had to move on from the Big Three, and this night proved the timing was right.