Their jerseys may have changed, and they most definitely aren't the same players, but they're still Celtics.
That much was clear in the aftermath of their return to TD Garden, this time as members of the Brooklyn Nets. Emotions took over, the crowd went wild and Garnett and Pierce were left humbled by a warm reception.
"I think (myself and Pierce) will always bleed green as long as we're playing basketball and as long as we're living," Garnett said following Brooklyn's 85-79 victory over Boston Sunday night, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "Even when they bury us six feet, this is what it’s going to be."
Nostalgia overshadowed the game itself. Reflection conquered competition. Yesterday overran today and tomorrow.
Early on, familiar chants rang throughout the arena, per Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:
A Paul Pierce chant raining down from the rafters— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) January 26, 2014
And familiar sights emerged, as Pierce and Garnett shared numerous moments with former teammate Rajon Rondo, via Lakers Nation's Andrew Ungvari:
The Celtics also showed tribute videos paying respect to the years of service Garnett and Pierce gave to the organization. SB Nation's Paul Flannery points out that a telling camera angle concluded the tribute to Garnett:
At the end of the KG tribute, the camera panned up to the two empty spaces on the retired jersey banner.— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) January 27, 2014
For Pierce especially, the return was difficult; it was harder than anything else he's ever had to do on the hardwood:
Paul Pierce: "This was the toughest game I have ever had to play."— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) January 27, 2014
Like Garnett, he swelled with emotion, still in love with the idea of representing Boston:
Thank you Boston for all the love u showed for me and KG you have provided me with so many memories I will always love u— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) January 27, 2014
It was an impassioned night—a momentous occasion.
As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says, it was as close to perfect as anyone could have asked for:
Fewer and fewer places in sports that you'll see and hear what Boston fans and Paul Pierce shared in a long, loud ovation at the Garden now.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 27, 2014
The only thing that could have made it better is if Pierce and Garnett were actually still sporting Celtics colors. So much has changed in recent months. Garnett and Pierce play for a different city and have assumed uncertain roles.
On Sunday, they played like aged veterans approaching the finishing line, combining for just 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists, in what was a stark reminder that change and regression are constants.
But the numbers didn't matter. The outcome didn't matter. Garnett and Pierce were back—back where they won an NBA title in 2008. Back where Pierce spent his first 15 seasons. Back where Garnett turned a six-year relationship into a lifetime connection.
They'll be back in Boston again on Friday, Mar. 7, but their next return, and any return thereafter, won't compare to this. Subsequent trips back to TD Garden will be more about moving on, about the next chapter.
For one glorious night, though, it was about getting lost in the past and remembering what was.
"People always say players can be too loyal, but I don't believe that," Garnett said, per Wojnarowski. "A city like Boston is worth it."
Garnett and Pierce, loyal as ever, were treated like kings.
Greeted as if they never left.
Accepted for who they are: wearers of Brooklyn black, forever bleeding Celtic green in their hearts.