Pierce, Garnett bring warmth to the cold season

Pierce, Garnett bring warmth to the cold season
January 27, 2014, 12:15 pm
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It was absolutely freezing in Boston on Sunday. More than 10 degrees below freezing for most of the night, with a wind chill that bit like an icy sledgehammer to the forehead.
 
Big deal, right? That’s January in New England. But that reality didn’t make the trek into the TD Garden any easier. Last night, that walk put a man’s mind and body to the test, and temporarily bumped all Celtics-inspired emotions off the gird. It replaced those emotions with a familiar line of desperate questions, like: Why do we even live here? Why do we voluntarily expose ourselves to this? Why not just pick up and start a new life out west where “cold” means throwing on a light jacket over your tee shirt?
 
As usual, those questions eventually gave way to borderline delirium. After a while, it was so cold that all I could do was laugh — out loud, to no one in particular, with whatever portion of my lungs hadn’t frozen to my ribs.
 
In the dead of Boston winter, sometimes laughing’s all you got. It’s your best chance to break the cycle and regain the only piece of perspective that makes even the slightest difference in times like this.
 
* * * * *
 
In basketball terms, winter has been equally hard on the Celtics. Of course, this comes as no surprise. This winter was on the horizon for six years, and along the way Boston feared and speculated about the impending conditions more than the Lannisters and Starks combined. A few months later, and it’s been about as rough as anyone could have imagined. It’s only a matter of time before a pack of White Walkers is spotted crossing the Tobin Bridge.
 
With last night’s loss to Brooklyn, the Celtics are now 2-13 since the calendar hit 2014. On the season, they’re 15-31. They have the third most losses in the league. They're on pace to finish with the third most losses in Celtics history. And while that might be a good thing in the big picture, on a day-to-day basis it’s tough. It tests your mettle as a sports fan. It tests your faith. It’s left the team temporarily frozen in time, running in place after a dream that’s only visible through a pair of military grade binoculars.
 
Just to be clear: It’s not all bad. There have been memorable games and inspiring story lines and promising developments along the way. At this stage in a rebuild, sometimes all it takes is for one player to catch your eye, win you over and keep you invested in every game. But overall, it’s been a painful and frustrating season for the Celtics. Two wins in their last 15 games. Three wins in their last 20 games.
 
Sometimes all you can do is shrug your shoulders and laugh at the cold.
 
* * * * *
 
On Sunday night, that freezing walk to the Garden was rewarded with warmth. The warmest that arena has been in a long, long time. Again, this wasn’t a surprise. From the moment Danny Ainge traded Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, Nets at Celtics became one of only three truly buzz worthy games on this year’s schedule — along with Doc Rivers’ return with the Clippers and Rajon Rondo’s return from injury. And now that all three games have come and gone, there’s no question as to which one mattered most. It’s Sunday in a landslide. If those three games faced off in one big game of 21, Gino would be dancing by halftime.
 
Sure, Doc and Rondo received a hero’s welcome, but it was so different. In both their cases, that applause rained down in the shadow of more empty, yellow seats than the Garden saw in the entire six years that Pierce, Garnett, Doc and Rondo collectively called Boston home. The buzz was real. It was warm. But above all else, it was fleeting. Reality froze back over before the heat could leave any lasting impression.
 
On the other hand, on Sunday, for the first time all season, the Garden was packed for the opening tip. Everyone came. And everyone was on time. Any visible yellow was nothing more than speck in a sea of green.
 
The crowd gave Pierce and Garnett their first standing ovation as they ran out of the tunnel for warm-ups, and then again when each one’s name was called during introductions. And each time, the players didn’t even try to ignore it. They openly embraced every second of the applause and made it clear that the feelings were mutual.
 
* * * * *
 
It would be fun to pull out the “Of course, there was still a game to be played,” card right now but I can’t. I can’t pretend that the outcome of last night’s game ever mattered all that much. Not when the whole arena spent most of the night cheering for both sides. For the Celtics, obviously. They cheered for the Celtics like they always have and always will. And like I already said, they cheered for Pierce and Garnett — although this wasn’t your typical welcome home applause.
 
This wasn’t “cheer them like crazy during introductions, boo them like crazy the first time they touch the ball and then have a big laugh over what you just did.” Instead, this was straight up, unconditional cheering. For the entire game, anytime Pierce or Garnett got the ball in a position to shoot or even think about shooting, the crowd was on the edge of its seat and ready to explode. At times, it was like the Garden morphed into 17,000 Archie Mannings at a Giants/Broncos game. Everyone cheering for everything.
 
To be honest, it had the potential to be pretty awkward. And it might have been had Pierce and/or Garnett consistently provided a reason for the Garden to erupt. But they didn’t. The future Hall of Famers shot a combined 5-16 on the night. They collectively scored as many points (12) as Celtics 10-Day Contract legend Chris Johnson. And you didn’t walk away feeling like their struggles were just a product of a bad shooting night.
 
Whether it was Garnett getting dunked on by Gerald Wallace or Pierce essentially being shut down by Brandon Bass. Or just the way they maneuvered up and down the court, or the countless times you watched them react a step or two too slow. The whole night was a constant reminder that Pierce and Garnett aren’t the players they once were, and again, that’s not a surprise. That’s the whole point. That’s why this was OK. That’s only the reason Boston so quickly made peace with what happened last July. That’s the only reason Danny Ainge ever pulled the trigger in the first place. That’s why the Garden was filled with so much happiness on Sunday night, but barely an ounce of regret.
 
Because Boston knew. Ainge knew. Pierce and Garnett had to know. But the Nets didn’t. Or maybe they just didn’t care.
 
Still, the game was fun. It was incredibly ugly. On any other night, you probably would’ve been watching the Grammys. And maybe you were anyway. In that case, fine. You win. But for those of us who stuck around, it was just great to see everyone back on the court together.
 
Personally, I compensated for the lack of quality basketball with a non-stop loop of hypotheticals: What happens if KG goes off and takes a cheap shot at Vitor? What happens if the Nets have the ball, down one, with five seconds left? Is there any chance that Pierce misses that shot? And what if the Celtics are in that same position? What if Rondo has the ball at the top of the key, KG picks him up in a switch and they face off with everything on the line like a modern day Kit and Dottie Henson?
 
Or what happens if, just like last year, Humphries lands a hard foul on KG. They start shoving, and, just like last year, Rondo is the player closest to the action. What does he do?!
 
None of that amounted to anything but it was a fun distraction while the Celtics and Nets traded bricks. And either way, no amount of bricks in the world could have killed the vibe in the Garden. Ultimately, the game was never about the game. It was a celebration.
 
Not only of Pierce and Garnett, but of all things Celtics.
 
* * * * *
 
But it was mostly about Pierce and Garnett, and the Jumbotron tribute each one received in the first half took the whole night to another level. If the Celtics are half as good at rebuilding as they are at putting together those tribute videos we might as well start planning a Duck Boat parade for the summer of 2015.
 
Garnett’s tribute began with a giant green No. 5, and faded back in time to July 2007, with ESPN speculating on the unlikelihood of Garnett landing in Boston. Fast forward to July 31, and the vision of Pierce, Garnett and Allen standing together at the podium. Now Garnett’s banging his head against the support and repeatedly punching himself in the chest. He’s dunking and screaming and then sitting calmly in a chair, wearing a casual button down shirt, two gigantic earrings and is piercing the crowd with his eyes:
 
“Let me just say this to the fans, man. Keep this motha’ rocking.”
 
Now he’s diving across the floor for a loose ball. He’s dunking again. He’s screaming again. He’s pounding his chest. He’s standing on the court, staring into the crowd and begging them to get on his level. He’s smashing the ball against his face at the free throw line. He’s doing knuckle pushup in the paint. He’s throwing in that ridiculous one-hander over Pau Gasol in the Finals. He’s kissing the floor. Confetti’s raining down. He grabs the mic and “Anyyyyythhiiiiiiing’s Possssssiblllle!”
 
After 80 seconds it’s over. But for 80 seconds it was all Kevin Garnett. Everything he brought to Boston. And more importantly, everything that he’ll leave here.
 
* * * * *
 
“I’m coming home . . . I’m coming home . . . tell the world that I’m coming  . . . home.”
 
That’s how Pierce’s video starts, and from one of the first clips of him jogging down the floor, you can’t help but notice how young he looks. How young he was.
 
Now David Stern’s at the podium, looking dead sexy in a designer suit: “With the next pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Pawwwl Pierce from the University Kansas.”
 
Pierce hugs his family and joins the Commish on stage and you can’t help but wonder what’s going through Pierce’s head. So angry after falling so far in the draft. So eager to prove everyone wrong. So unaware that a few months later, he’ll be rushed to the hospital in a fight for his life.
 
Now Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise are screaming at each other. “You can’t HANDLE THE TRUTH.” And you can’t help but think back to how many times you watched that same clip on that same big screen over the last decade. How it never got old and never lost meaning.
 
Now Pierce is at the top of the key in the 2003 playoffs against the Pacers. He’s dribbling down the clock, yelling at Al Harrington the entire time. He’s telling him exactly what he’s about to do. The entire Garden knows what he’s about to do. And then he does it. He pulls up from 25-feet, drains a three in Harrington’s eye and then runs back on defense like it was nothing. Like he was the man. And at that moment he was.
 
For all memories Pierce made and the respect he gained after teaming up with Garnett and Ray Allen, it’s sometimes easy to forget how insanely dominant he was in his prime. That from 2000-2003 — aka the three years before Ainge took over, initiated a necessary rebuild and pushed Pierce to the brink of insanity — he was one of the most dominant players in the league. He scored 2000 points in three straight seasons. By comparison, last year Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and James Harden were the only players in the entire league to eclipse that mark. In 2002, Pierce led the league in total points. In 2003, he led the league in free throws attempted and made. I could go on for five more paragraphs reminiscing about how legendary that player was, but instead, just re-watch that shot against Harrington. That’s it. That moment in time says everything about Paul Pierce’s individual greatness.
 
That player existed long before Garnett and Allen arrived, and it should never be overlooked.
 
Speaking of which, now the video skips to a montage of Pierce in and around the community. Speaking at events and playing with kids and just making people happy. You get the sense that when Pierce looks back on his time in Boston, those things he was able to achieve off the court will mean as much as anything he achieved with a basketball in his hand.
 
Then again, there’s probably one exception, and the tribute saved that part for last. The 2008 Finals. The Celtics and the Lakers. The moment Pierce officially made the leap from Celtic great to a Boston sports legend.
 
It was that series and that title that forever cemented the legacies of both Pierce and Garnett. In a weird way, you can argue that it was the following five seasons that truly endeared Boston to those guys and that team. How often they were written off, how often they proved everyone wrong, and more than that, how they went about doing it. With toughness and grit, and, as cliché as it sounds, by just wanting it more.
 
The Pierce/Garnett era Celtics stole Boston’s heart in 2008, but it was over those next five years that the city truly grew to love them. That time played such a major role in all the emotions on display last night.
 
But let’s be honest, it’s all about the title. Before long, whether it’s 20, 50 or 100 years from now, memories of those never-say-die Celtics and the almost magical playoffs runs in 2010 and 2012 will disappear. Those teams will be hard to appreciate unless you were there.
 
But that title isn’t going anywhere.
 
* * * * *
 
“Some things are forever, man.”
 
Kevin Garnett said that on Friday night, talking about his time with the Celtics, as the Nets were preparing for the trip back to Boston. And for a guy whose point is sometimes lost in crazy metaphors and sheer intimidation, Garnett summed it up perfectly.
 
Forever. That’s what this is. That’s what this was. Garnett re-iterated that point last night in his post game press conference. “That was our era,” he said, “that’s what we embedded in history, and that’s forever.” I asked Garnett to elaborate on that ‘forever,’ hoping that he’d get a little deeper into what that meant to him. With Garnett, you always assume it runs very deep. In this case, he didn’t elaborate much. The press conference was already running long, and he’d already spoke more openly than he had over his entire six seasons in Boston. “We take that to the grave with us,” he eventually said.
 
But in this case, forever is much more than that. In basketball terms, that title and that era mean that Garnett and Pierce will never die. As long they’re playing basketball in Boston, that banner will be hanging in the rafters. And before long, No. 5 and No. 34 will be right up there next to it.
 
In the meantime, the pair was there last night, and for as long as they were, the unfortunate reality of the current state of Celtics basketball didn’t exist. Or just didn’t matter. For one night, all the cold disappeared. It was so warm. It was so needed.
 
Just seeing the Garden like that again. Seeing a sold out crowd. Feeling that excitement. Feeling like everything mattered. Those are memories that will never go away.
 
* * * * *
 
But it was still cold as hell outside.
 
The walk home after the game was just as painful as the trip there. By now, Pierce and KG had already boarded the bus back to Logan, and then a plane back to Brooklyn for Monday’s visit from the Raptors. The Celtics were getting ready for trip down to New York for Tuesday’s game with the Knicks.
And at this point, both last night and as you’re presently reading this, reality has officially set back in.
 
Bottom line: It’s cold. It’s going to be cold. Maybe even colder. It might be a long time before Boston and Celtics fans have a chance to get reacquainted with all the warmth that filled the Garden last night.
 
But while it might be gone for now, on Sunday, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett provided a much-needed break from the cold and a little perspective on why it’s all worth it.
 
Basically, that even the harshest winter eventually turns into summer. And when the sun comes out in Boston, there are few places in the world you’d rather be.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine