At the start of the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ game against the Cavaliers on Sunday, an old video of Paul Pierce in his Celtics uniform flashed on the TD Garden video board. Pierce implored the crowd to get loud, to give the Celtics a boost. Meanwhile, present-day Pierce sat in a courtside seat on the day his No. 34 would be retired, unable to really do anything about the massive deficit that his former team faced.
LeBron James and the new-look Cavs crashed Pierce’s party and stormed to an emphatic 121-99 win. It was Boston’s third loss in four games, and it has faced deficits of 26 points or more in all of them.
It was a sobering defeat in front of Pierce and his former teammates such as Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Antoine Walker. But the sellout crowd did not stay down for long. About 30 minutes after game’s end, Pierce’s stirring number retirement ceremony began.
Co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, former coach Doc Rivers, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge addressed the crowd first. Then Pierce, who said his hands were shaking as he waited for the ceremony to begin, took the microphone and gave a 20-minute speech in which he thanked everyone from Garnett to a Los Angeles police officer who used to give him free haircuts as a teenager.
Pierce began to cry when he acknowledged his wife and three young children who sat about 15 feet away, so the Garden crowd quickly picked him up with a standing ovation.
Pierce had watched the game from a courtside seat behind a basket, and he said he could not recall ever doing that here.
“It definitely gave me chills, especially with LeBron out there,” Pierce said. “I wanted to be out there.”
But those days are over now. The current Celtics filed out of their locker room after their humbling defeat and watched the ceremony. They heard the talk about the 2008 title team. They saw Pierce lift the championship trophy for the crowd one last time.
For the current players, it was a reminder of what they are chasing and why they are chasing it. This team is not far from being a championship contender, but games like Sunday’s are a reminder that they are not there just yet.
“I think we can consistently learn from not only a game like tonight, but the last few games of playing the high-intense teams in the Eastern Conference where we’ve been tested,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. ‘I have a lot to learn. Us as a team, I think we do as well, but it’s just great when you get a chance to go through these things as a young group.”
The Cavaliers completely reshaped their roster at Thursday’s trade deadline, making a series of deals in which Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Iman Shumpert were shipped out, and George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson were brought in. In an instant, Cleveland had become younger and more athletic, and, perhaps more importantly, rinsed away an atmosphere that was becoming toxic.
The newcomers debuted on Sunday and combined for 49 points on 18 for 35 shooting. And, of course, the Cavaliers still have James, who had 24 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds in just 28 minutes.
Irving led the Celtics with 18 points, but the score was so lopsided that neither he nor James played in the fourth quarter.
For the Celtics, the day was set up to be a rolling four-hour party. They would be playing at home, behind the buzz of Pierce’s feting, against a Cleveland team that had no choice but to maintain a vanilla game plan, because half of its rotation players knew nothing else. Then the good vibes could roll over into Pierce’s ceremony in a happy mix of the past, present and future.
But James has soured Celtics’ parties many times before, and this afternoon turned out to be no different.
“It was a good start for the new guys,” James said. “It was a good start for all of us with our revamped team, so far.”
The Cavaliers received a bit of a scare with five minutes left in the first quarter, when James fell to the ground after bumping knees with Aron Baynes on a drive to the basket. He limped to the bench and stayed there for the rest of the period, as well as the first three minutes of the second.
When he returned at the 8:58 mark, the Cavaliers trailed, 40-38. But that deficit did not last long. James found his rhythm with a 20-foot fadeaway to ignite an 18-8 run in which he scored 10 of his 17 first-half points.
The Celtics, meanwhile, looked like the team that was welcoming four new players to the rotation. During one sloppy second-quarter stretch, Boston committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions, and it missed all eight of its 3-pointers in the period, helping Cleveland take a 64-52 lead to halftime.
In the third quarter the Cavaliers’ newcomers helped put the game away. With Cleveland already leading by 17 points, Clarkson and Hood drilled back-to-back 3-pointers. Then after a floater by James, Clarkson drained another 3, making it 95-69.
At the final buzzer, some boos for the home team were mixed with chants for Pierce. Even though it had been a grisly afternoon for the Celtics, Pierce was happy to step forward and remind everyone here of better times.