Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have not really played together for a long time, relatively speaking. They spent a larger portion of their careers playing without each other than with each other, even if Garnett wearing Timberwolves royal blue seems like a distant memory. They have a long time to go, for instance, before they match the 12 years Bill Russell and Sam Jones shared the court from 1957-1969.
The newness of Garnett in a Celtics jersey wore off for Pierce long ago, however. The two quickly learned to play with each other and the third member of their All-Star trio, Ray Allen, in winning an NBA championship that first year. Pierce still does not seem to be as close personally with Garnett as Rajon Rondo is, but if Pierce and Garnett are not the best of friends, their relationship has grown comfortably over the years, nonetheless. They have long been able to read each other's movements on the court, and in their fifth year together last season, Pierce finally realized he could almost read his teammate's tendencies off the court as well.
For most of last year, Pierce made the mistake of reading Garnett literally. The veteran big man's contract was due to expire at the end of the season, and whenever Pierce would ask him in the locker room if he planned to retire, Garnett would respond, "Yeah, this is it."
Pierce worried about that. At 34 years old, he had no interest in going through another rebuilding phase, and if Garnett retired and Allen also chose not to re-sign, Pierce figured a rebuilding project might be exactly what team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would put in motion. For that reason, when the subject of his own retirement came up last season, Pierce would make some vague comment that amounted to, we'll see.
Garnett has been playing for a long time, Pierce knew. "The Kid" had been under the microscope as a player since high school, when he left his native Mauldin, S.C., to play at Farragut Career Academy in Chicago. He became a professional on Wednesday, June 28, 1995, at the age of 19 and knew no other life. If he was burned out, Pierce would not have been surprised.
Still, it was not as though Garnett was limping to the finish. For the second half of last season, Garnett was one of the top five players in the NBA, alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Rondo. Pierce figured Garnett was too good to let go now.
"This is in his blood," Pierce said early in training camp. "This is what he's been born to do. For him to be playing at a high level and walk away from the game with his competitive spirit, inside I knew he wasn't going anywhere, because as a competitor I understand other competitors and I just knew that he wasn't going to walk away."
After 17 seasons, six coaches and too many teammates to count, Garnett understandably has become a bit of a contrarian. Tell him he played well in a game defensively and he probably will respond that he thinks he could have played better defensively, but was happy with how his jump shot was falling. Compliment his shooting after a 10-for-12 performance and he might say he was more satisfied with his screen-setting. It is a subtle way to reminding everybody that no one knows himself as well as he does.
So while Pierce claims Garnett led him to believe he was retiring, Garnett insists he implied no such thing. He thought he had more to give to his team, his fans and his coach, Doc Rivers.
"I don't know where Paul got that from," Garnett said. "I never used the word 'retire.' I did give it some real thought. With free agency coming up, I didn't want to think about another team or nothing like that. My retirement obviously would've been a personal decision based on my family and whatever reasons I had, but my No. 1 reason for coming back was obviously Doc. Doc being here is huge. I enjoy playing for him. The guys, the city, the fans here are by far the best fans I've ever been a part of. All that stuck with me, along with family motivations and other things of that sense."
Garnett may have never used the "R" word, but Pierce used it plenty of times, and every time he asked Garnett if he planned to retire, Garnett said "yes." What Garnett means and what he says are not always one and the same, though. As Pierce pondered Garnett's future, and by extension his own, he recalled his teammate saying he would never accept playing center. Yet when Rivers penciled him into that spot last season, Garnett flourished.
Gradually, Pierce came to the realization that when Garnett says "no," it often means "yes," and that "yes" often means "no" — particularly when what is best for the team is on the line.
"Thinking about it, I knew that that was a 'yes' that meant 'no,'" Pierce said.
As Pierce and Garnett prepare to share a spot in the Boston frontcourt for a sixth season, the Celtics are positioned to be one of the top teams in the NBA once again. The Miami Heat are still strong and bolstered by the signing of Allen, the Los Angeles Lakers are rejuvenated by the additions of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison, and up-and-coming teams like the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder have another year of postseason experience. Through all that, an 18th title remains a realistic possibility for the league's most decorated franchise.
Without Pierce or Garnett, though, championship contention might be nothing more than a distant dream for the 2012-13 Celtics. We may never know how close either came to actually calling it quits, only that they did not, and the Celtics are better for it.