Predictably, tonight was about much more than just a basketball game. Even Brad Stevens, always the tactician, was able to set aside the X's and O's tonight and maintain some perspective on what this all meant.
For one evening, it was a time to forget about shot selection and pick-and-roll defense and transition play. It didn't matter that the Celtics were 15-30, or that Rajon Rondo was still slowly trudging back from ACL surgery, or that the rest of the roster looked jagged and inconsistent. Setting aside all of the hoops stuff, tonight was just about two guys and their return home.
"We got out of those timeouts pretty quickly," Stevens recalled. "We just called a play and then watched. That's the right thing to do."
For the first two timeouts of tonight's game between the Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets, there was no time for strategizing. Both teams instead set aside basketball and stared up at the TD Garden JumboTron, taking in an unforgettable pair of video tributes to two Boston sports heroes, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Pierce's video included his draft selection in 1998, his early years in Boston and his "Willis Reed moment" when he returned from injury to lead the C's to victory in the 2008 Finals. Garnett's featured his buzzer-beating shot to beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, his legendary "knuckle push-ups" moment and his victory catchphrase from '08 - "Anything's possible!"
Gameplay stopped. People stood and watched. A few tears were shed. Compared to all this, the game didn't matter.
"It's hard to see when you're in the moment and you're coaching the team, but there are bigger things than the next possession," Stevens said. "Not much in my life is bigger than the next possession, but that is. We'll honor that appropriately."
As for the players themselves, they struggled at first to find words to describe this experience. Garnett, who was always the more impassioned of the two during his six years in Boston, eventually it within himself to gush about how it felt to be showered with love in the Garden again.
"The one word that comes to mind is unbelievable," Garnett said. "I didn't expect anything like that for myself. It shows the type of first-class organization that this is and the appreciation of the organization for you. I had lumps in my throat. I keep it under control and I tried to focus as much as I could on the game... but man. This was over the top."
Pierce agreed. After 15 seasons in Boston, it wasn't easy to make his first appearance here for another team.
"This was the toughest game I've ever had to play," the former captain said. "Tougher than any championship game, any Game 7. This game, it was so hard to focus, to really concentrate on what was at hand. We had a game to play, but it was so hard. I saw so many friends, so many people I've known for years.
"It was hard to get into a routine. You just never settled in. You just thought about the times, the friendships, the relationships. You get showered with love throughout the whole game. You look up, you see so many Kevin jerseys, my jerseys, so many posters. Every second you're on the bench, every second you're in the game, people were calling your name. It was really tough for me to focus today. I'm happy we got it over with so I can go back to playing basketball."
Now that the initial homecoming is finally over, we may see somewhat of a return to normalcy in Boston. Pierce and Garnett are in the past, reduced to fond memories, and it's time for the Celtics to focus on the present. The franchise has new leaders - namely, Stevens and Rajon Rondo - and it's time to build a new core, craft a new future.
That said, they can still learn plenty from their old leaders.
"Everybody can learn something from those guys," Stevens said. "Any day of the week. Just by putting in old film, or listening to old stories, or watching Brooklyn play now. Those guys are winners."
Rondo agreed. At 27, he's finally reached the point where the Celtics are indisputably his team, and he's fortunate that he got to learn for years under Pierce and Garnett.
"I've been learning from those guys throughout the last five, six years that they've been here," the point guard said. "I've just continued to grow as a person and lead by example."
The time for Pierce and Garnett's leadership is now officially over. Tonight, the Celtics' franchise closed the book on a previous chapter in its history. It may not be easy, but it's time for the team to move forward.