With 13.3 seconds left in overtime and a capacity crowd at the TD Garden waiting with bated breath, Paul Pierce stepped to the free-throw line, shooting for history. He had 19,999 career points to his name, and he wanted one more.
He got it.
He exhaled, he raised both arms to the heavens in celebration — and then he stepped back to the line to drain another free throw. He still had a job to do.
"It wouldn't have felt as good to do it," Pierce said, "if we didn't get the win."
Yes, that's the old sports cliche — individual achievements mean nothing if the team can't win. And not even Pierce's 20,000th career point, the product of 12-plus years of hard work wearing Celtic green, was exempt from that rule. So Pierce did what any great team player would do, he made the second free throw, and he went on to sink four more in the final seconds of a 105-102 Boston win.
It was a game that featured 15 ties, 15 lead changes, countless dramatic moments, and 53 minutes of never-ending drama that ended in the Celtics' fourth victory of the young season. As regular-season NBA games go, they don't get much more dramatic than this — but in the end, all the drama was overshadowed by Pierce's achievement.
"It was emotional moment for me," Pierce said. "It was tough for me to swallow at the time. I was just thinking about all the years I've been here. You don't see it too often that a player accomplishes this feat playing on one team. This means so much to the fans, seeing my ups and downs throughout the years and sticking with me. Just to be able to accomplish this kind of feat means a lot to me. I'm not going to downplay it. It means a lot."
"The 20,000-point thing is phenomenal. I can't even comprehend it," said coach Doc Rivers, who tallied 9,377 career points back in his playing days. "It's awesome. It really is. I don't know how many people have done it, I don't know any of the numbers, but it's just amazing. It really is."
Here are the numbers. In the history of the professional game, ABA included, 40 players have topped the 20,000 mark. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands alone atop the list at 38,387; Pierce is 40th at 20,005.
But the even more elite class is those who have done it all in one uniform. Kareem couldn't do that; neither could Karl Malone, Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain, all of whom played for multiple teams before hanging it up.
Neither, of course, could Kevin Garnett, who reached the 20,000-point plateau as a Celtic back in 2008.
"To do it in one uniform is very, very special," Garnett said. "It means a lot, man. It means a lot. There's only a select few that are in that category. That's a very, very small window of people. It's a good list of people to be neighbored by."
The most elite list of all is this one. The following players have scored 20,000 points in their careers exclusively as Celtics: John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Paul Pierce.
That's it. That's the entire list.
And to be a part of it, after all the years of hard work, means everything to the Celtics' captain.
"Those are Hall of Fame players," Pierce said. "Top-50 players. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with them means a lot. These guys are part of history — they'll be remembered in Celtic lore forever. Hopefully I can enshrine my name into that category as I continue to play and continue to do good things for this franchise."