BOSTON -- Paul Pierce was coming home, but if the pillars have been removed and the foundation has been replaced, is it still his house?
The answer, in a TD Garden awash in memories and emotion, was unequivocally yes.
On this night, the performance of the plucky Celtics team was of secondary importance. The fans not only cheered wildly as video tributes for each future Hall of Famer unfolded on the video screen high above the court (including a young woman who sobbed during the montage of the Truth's greatest moments), they celebrated every time Pierce touched the ball, passed it to a teammate or simply checked into the game.
They even saluted him when he was on the bench. One of the more surreal moments of Sunday's lovefest was when chants of "Paul Pierce" wafted through the building as Celtics forward Kris Humphries tried to shoot a pair of free throws for the home team.
It was not without irony that Humphries was one of the players traded for Pierce, although the real haul was the future first-round draft picks, the promise of a new day. That's what convinced Danny Ainge to ship Boston's second all-time leading scorer out of town.
It was a devastating blow to a proud, proud man who thought he'd earned the right to stay forever.
It was never his intent to step onto the parquet in black-and-silver Brooklyn colors, to dress in the opposing dressing room, to try to beat the only franchise he'd ever known.
"This was the toughest game I've ever had to play," Pierce conceded. "Tougher than any championship, tougher than any Game 7."
Although Pierce and KG had mentally prepared themselves for this trip and the inevitable emotional tug of war it would entail, it was completely and utterly disarming. All those No. 34 and No. 5 jerseys, all those "Celtic for Life" signs, all those standing ovations. How were they expected to concentrate?
The hearty New England welcome began the moment Pierce and Garnett touched down on Massachusetts soil. A franchise that is used to domination had lost 13 of 15 games. Pierce, its (former) captain, was a sight for sore eyes, but he tried valiantly to deflect the distractions of an adoring public that no longer roots for his team.
"I just really tried to focus and get back to the hotel and get some rest," Pierce said, "laying in a downtown hotel in Boston when I'm used to being in my house."
Doc Rivers, who endured his own weepy return in December, reached out days earlier to offer some perspective, but it didn't help, not really, because when Pierce glanced up at the video board and saw the highlight clip of Game 4 of the 2008 Finals, when he brought his team back from 24 down to beat the Lakers, he knew -- everyone in the building knew -- his finest moments were here, would always be here, never to be duplicated.
"You know what? I think as long as I'm in the league, it's going to be tough [to come back]," Pierce admitted, "because I'm going to have to come back to the Boston Garden. ... When you come back there's always going to be memories, and there's nothing you're going to do to escape."