BOSTON — The Celtics knew there would be an outpouring of emotion at the TD Garden last night, as a pair of legends beloved by the Boston fanbase returned for the first time to the parquet where they won an NBA title.
But the sheer intensity of the love that filled the Garden for icons Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was enough to leave the players still wearing Celtic Green in a state of awe.
“The fans really embraced those guys,” said rookie Celtics guard Phil Pressey. You see the standing ovation and it’s really amazing. Then I look into the crowd and there is a woman holding a Pierce jersey and crying. She was sobbing! You could really see what those two meant to the organization.”
Last night clearly belonged to Pierce and Garnett, who were making their first trip to Boston since being traded to the Brooklyn Nets as part of Boston’s rebuilding effort following last season.
But while the fans were clearly on the side of the two Celtic legends, the current Boston Celtics could not be.
Through the multiple standing ovations, the moving video tributes to the two future Hall of Famers and yes, as least two fans in the stands outwardly crying, the current Green Team could not become caught up in the hype.
The Celtics had to remember that The Truth and KG were the enemy, and that they had a game to play against them last night.
“I owe so much to those two,” said veteran Celtics swingman Jeff Green, who spent three seasons as a teammate of the two. “I had to pay my respects because they taught me a lot about how to approach the game. Without them who knows where my career would be after everything that happened.
“But they were the opponent, and this was still a game that we were out there to win. We wanted to win this, but we couldn’t get it done.”
In the end, the former Celtics — ex-C’s Jason Terry and Joe Johnson also played heavy minutes — came out with the victory over the current Celtics 85-79.
For the players that were facing their former teammates and friends, watching their hometown fans — many wearing Pierce jerseys of the Boston and Brooklyn variety — cheer on the two was an odd experience.
“It was unique,” said Pressey, who spent much of his childhood in Boston while his father was an assistant coach for the Celtics. “You don’t see that reception too often. There aren’t too many people that mean that much to an organization. But we did have to remember that it was a game and we still had to play. We still competed, we just couldn’t get over the top.”
While Pressey never took the court with Pierce or KG, forward Brandon Bass spent two seasons with the two, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12.
“(The tribute) is one of those moments that every player would like to have at the end of their career,” said Bass, who scored a game-high 17 points. “It was a great moment for Paul and I am happy for him. For a little bit you get caught up in it, but for the most part we know we had a job to do and that was to try to get the win.”
For forward Jared Sullinger, who spent last year as a teammate of the duo, the awkwardness was offset by a few previous meetings.
“We played them in the preseason and we played them in Brooklyn so that made it a lot less weird,” said the bigman. “We knew what we had to do.”
It was a bizarre introduction to Boston for Chris Johnson. The guard, who actually began the year with Brooklyn before being released without playing a game, joined the Celtics six days ago on a 10-day contract, and was playing his first game at the Garden.
“It was a great honor for them,” said Johnson. “They came here and won a championship. You definitely catch yourself watching the stuff some. But you had to remember it was just another game and we fought hard until the end. Unfortunately we didn’t win.”
While the outcome wasn’t what the Celtics had hoped, it did leave a few dreaming of the way their career could end,.
“That is what happens when you are with a team for a long time and the fans care about you,” said Bass. “I hope one day that will be me.”