Paul Pierce wore Celtics green for 15 years, so he knows it’s hard to go down without a fight while wearing that uniform. After his former team battled back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull within five points in the final two minutes, Pierce didn’t sound all that surprised.
He’d seen that sort of effort before. Now he got to see it from the other side.
“That’s Celtic pride,” Pierce told a sideline reporter after the Nets had completed their 104-96 win over the Celtics on Tuesday. “I love those guys. They’ve got a lot of pride. You see it in their coaching, you hear [Rajon] Rondo on the bench. That’s the Celtics. They’re always going to play with pride.”
These Celtics weren’t doing anything differently than usual, however, in a season in which shared effort has been a common theme in exceeding just about everybody’s expectations. The Nets were the ones who showed uncommon resolve on Tuesday. For most of the first 20 games of the season, the Nets have looked directionless, lackadaisical or confused. But they came out with intensity on defense against the Celtics, which helped them take an early 11-point lead that became a necessary cushion against the scrappy Celtics in the fourth quarter.
Pierce and Kevin Garnett insisted in the lead-up to this game that the emotion was out of their systems. Although Garnett sat out both preseason meetings, he echoed Pierce’s remarks about this being just another game. It clearly meant a little more to Pierce, who was noticeably energetic afterward despite taking just three shots and scoring only four points.
As for Garnett, the uniform has never meant as much to him as the people who wear it and represent it. He went down the list of ex-teammates he misses, from Glen Davis to Brandon Bass, as well as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and former coach Doc Rivers, now with the Clippers.
“Because Doc isn’t over there, it’s probably a little less emotional,” Garnett told reporters. “You don’t see Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Eddie House, Baby. You do see Rajon over there, which makes it a little more emotional at times. Obviously, I went to battle with BB and a lot of those guys. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, those are really solid guys that I know on that team.
“Other than that, it was just another night at the office. They’d been playing well. Beat the crap out of the Knicks.”
Still, Garnett wasn’t nearly as detached as his former protege, Rondo, who told reporters in Brooklyn that he is “not an emotional guy” and therefore had no personal feelings about the Celtics miniature reunion week with the Nets on Tuesday and Rivers’ Clippers on Wednesday. For Garnett, there will always be something about the Celtics jersey that will give him pause, no matter who is wearing it.
“It’ll always be a special place in my heart when I face the green,” he said. “Even if it is different players on the team, I’ll always have an affiliation with that.”
Heading into this game, the only way the Nets would win, it seemed, was for their talent to supersede the Celtics’ talent. Judging by the beating Nets coach Jason Kidd has taken in the tabloids, Brad Stevens was sure to outcoach his counterpart.
At least, that was the way this was supposed to go.
It turned out Kidd — or whichever assistant coach he has calling the shots now that Lawrence Frank has been banished — put together a nice all-around gameplan. The Nets carved up the Celtics on defense with a rather simple approach. Brooklyn either tossed the ball into the post to Brook Lopez, who used his superior height and reach against Bass, or let Deron Williams get into the paint to create plays.
Lopez finished with 24 points on near-perfect 10-of-13 shooting, while Williams tallied a game-high 25 points.
Stevens, the mastermind who was supposed to take his fellow rookie coach to school, even complimented the Nets’ coaching staff in his postgame comments.
“Credit to all their coaches and their players,” Stevens told reporters. “They played great [Tuesday]. They played really hard, really together. They took us out of what we wanted to do. Garnett, specifically, defensively did some really good things that just took us out of what we wanted to do on a couple of occasions. We weren’t playing the [Brooklyn] Nets who played without D-Will for those 10 games. That is their team, and that is a good basketball team. You add [Andrei] Kirilenko to it and that’s scary.”
Owing to the universally mediocre nature of the Eastern Conference, the standings in the Atlantic Division could be flipped by the end of the week. The Celtics arrived in Brooklyn with a three-game lead on the Nets for first place. Their lead was whittled to two games after the loss, with a tough matchup with the Clippers on Wednesday and a rematch with the humbled Knicks on Friday. The Nets will get the Clips in the second leg of a back-to-back on Thursday, then take on the Pistons on Friday.
Don’t look away from the Atlantic for too long. You might miss something in the division where even the teams that are up aren’t very far from being down, and even the teams that are way, way down aren’t completely out of the picture.