BOSTON — Paul Pierce has played in his share of high stakes, winner-take-all games before.
But those games fall well short of what he went through to prepare emotionally for Sunday, his first game back at the TD Garden since the Celtics traded him to Brooklyn, along with Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, this past summer.
This wasn't just any player from the past coming back to his old stomping grounds.
This was the Truth.
The man who, with the help of Garnett and Ray Allen, helped transform a once-proud franchise that had fallen upon a decade of defeat, into a powerful, fire-breathing, kick-ass-and-take-names-later squad that on most nights was too strong, too powerful, too determined to lose.
And now being on the opposite side of all that history was admittedly tougher than Pierce who spent his first 15 NBA seasons in Boston, had envisioned.
"This was the toughest game I ever had to play," Pierce, with Garnett at his side, told reporters following Brooklyn's 85-79 win over Boston. "This game was just really hard to focus and concentrate on what was at hand. At the end of the day we had a game to play but it was so hard to really focus."
Garnett, making his return to the TD Garden for the first time since the trade, echoed similar sentiments.
"By far the hardest day that I've had to focus," Garnett said. "This is bigger than Minnesota, when I went back to Minnesota; Minnesota wasn't like this.
Garnett added, "It felt good to be showered and for the city to show their appreciation ... You give yourself, people always say players can be too loyal. I don't believe that, a city like Boston is worth it and tonight's the epitome of that."
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens never had a chance to coach Garnett or Pierce. But it's clear he has a deep understanding and appreciation for the connection that's formed between players who spend time donning a Celtics uniform.
"This town gets it," Stevens said. "You know, this town is special and you can see why. And all the people that have gotten a chance to play here and that you talk to, whether they played here for a year or whether they played here for 15 years, all talk about how special it is. You know that coming in, but you can feel it on nights like tonight. It was really a great tribute to both guys, obviously extremely well-deserved."
Following the first time-out, the Celtics did a tribute to Garnett that came as a surprise to no one - except Garnett, apparently.
"I didn't expect anything like that for myself," Garnett said. "Shows the first class, shows the type of organization that this is and the appreciation from this organization for you. I couldn't put it into words."
Pierce's video tribute came afterwards and not surprisingly, was a bit longer.
As the images of Pierce hitting big shot after big shot played to cheers and tears of those at the TD Garden Sunday night, and the replaying of Pierce in the community working with children and of course, him helping bring home Banner 17, it was clear Pierce's attempts at keeping his emotions in check were not working.
"Paul and I were joking before the game who was gonna tear up and drop a tear," Garnett said. "I had lumps in my throat and I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it. But man, this was over the top. I couldn't put that into words."
Said Pierce: "I was probably about five seconds from shedding (tears), five seconds I'll admit it. No words can really describe the shower of love here."
Once the video tributes were out of the way and they got down to playing the game, neither player ever got into any kind of groove or flow.
Pierce had six points on 2-for-10 shooting while Garnett also had six points on 3-for-6 shooting.
However, Garnett's last basket came after a steal and subsequent lay-up in the final minute of play that was arguably the biggest play of the night on a night when few were locked into the game's play.
"It took me two days to get the lay-up up," Garnett quipped. "I thought I was gonna get caught but I got it still, put the ball in front of me, and I got the lay-up."
All the talk before, during and after the game centered around Pierce and Garnett back in the building for the first time.
And you know what?
It's probably going to be similar when they return to the TD Garden on March 7.
"It is what it is when you put so much time and energy in one spot," Pierce said. "When you come back there's always going to be memories and there's nothing you're going to escape. As long as I'm able to come back to the Boston Garden, as long as I'm going to be able to play games it's going to be tough."
And the reason is simple.
Because both he and Garnett, no matter what jerseys they wear or what team they play for, have a connection to this city, to this team, to this franchise, that can never be broken.
"We'll always bleed green as long as we're playing basketball and as long as we're living," Garnett said. "Even when they bury us six-feet, this is what it's gonna be."