BOSTON — Staring down Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals or having the weight of a region an iconic franchise on his shoulders.
Paul Pierce said all that and anything else you can think of in his Hall of Fame career pales to the emotions he felt last night in his return to the TD Garden.
“This was the toughest game I ever had to play,” said the 16-year veteran after the Nets beat the Celtics 85-79 in a Pierce-Kevin Garnett return to Boston lovefest. “Tougher than any championship game or any Game 7. ... You thought about the times, the friendships, the relationships. You get showered with love the whole game. You look up and see so many Kevin jerseys, so many my jerseys, posters and it’s every second.”
Garnett concurred: “This is not even close. It’s not even close.”
Garnett, like a wild-eyed, overgrown statesman, handled himself flawlessly on the parquet and in the post-game media session.
“This was over the top. ... What comes to mind is unbelievable,” said Garnett, who teamed with Pierce, Doc Rivers, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo to revive a franchise on life support. “I didn’t expect anything like that. ... I couldn’t put it into words. Paul and I were joking before the game who was going to tear up. I had lumps in my throat.”
They may be in Brooklyn but these were the “New Jersey” Nets. Pierce and KG just don’t look right in Brooklyn Black. But last night was all about KG’s six years in Boston and Pierce’s 15 years.
Hollywood slick videos, oversized Jumbotron scoreboards, countless memories and fans starved for nostalgia.
It’s the perfect recipe for sports reunions. And the Celtics did it right.
The packed house of 18,624 began early with Pierce. Prior to the pre-game introduction the fans chimed in sing-song fashion: “Pauuuuuul Pieeeeerce” ... clap, clap. ... “Pauuuuul Pieeeerce” clap, clap.
KG tapped his heart repeatedly during the long ovation following his introduction.
Late in the first quarter came the video for KG, highlighted by his famous guttural “anything’s possible” roar after the C’s got the Lakers to quit in the sixth and deciding game of the 2008 NBA Finals.
Pierce was here for 15 years and his 1,102 regular-season games in green trail only John Havlicek and Robert Parish and is a full 131 more than Kevin McHale in fourth. So for all those years and all those points (24,021 and 2,843 in the playoffs), the franchise and its video crew had to get it right.
An irate Jack Nicholson/Colonel Nathan R. Jessup screamed, “You can’t handle the Truth!”
They used the old Pierce footage imploring the Garden fans, “Let me feel it!”
There was a young Pierce side-by-side with a young Antoine Walker and so many of the great plays. Pierce bowed and clapped on the Nets sidelines while the highlights rolled.
He voiced to the appreciative crowd, “I love you guys. I love you.”
Last night’s game and this season have shown their careers are nearing an end. Both scored just six points. Both have been disappointing, although it may have been foolhardy to think a 37-year-old KG and a 36-year-old Pierce could team with Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to lead the Nets to a title.
But last night was all about memories and nostalgia and a special New Big 3 era, not about each franchise’s current struggles.
KG, who fittingly had the play of the game with a late steal and creaky coast-to-coast drive, summed up the night:
“People always say players can be too loyal,” he said. “I don’t believe that. A city like Boston is worth it. Tonight’s the epitome of all that.”
Michael Muldoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MullyET
Brooklyn 85, Boston 79
Paul Pierce’s night: 6 points (2-10 shooting), 4 rebounds, 2 assists
Kevin Garnett’s night: 6 points (3-6 shooting), 3 rebounds, 3 assists
Look out below: Boston has lost 17 of its last 20 games
Streaking: The Nets have won 10 of their last 11
Green team: Jeff Green was 2 of 13, 1 of 7 on 3s, 8 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist. Ouch.
Triple threat: Rajon Rondo had 13 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists but a killer late turnover
Bricklayer: Jared Sullinger was 1 of 7 shooting
ESPN fact: Pierce scored 24,021 points for the C’s while the total Boston roster last night has 12,738 as Celtics.
Records: Nets 20-22, Celts 15-31
Up next: Boston at N.Y. Knicks, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.