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Paul Pierce Gets a Hero’s Welcome and a Legend’s Exit in Boston

No. 34 received a send-off to remember against his old team

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Paul Pierce

On Sunday, exactly 18 years after the first time he suited up in Boston, Paul Pierce took the court at TD Garden for the last time.

Pierce hadn’t played minutes for the Clippers since December 31, and Los Angeles is struggling for traction in the standings after a slippery month. Doc Rivers started the 39-year-old against the Celtics, anyway. Pierce’s 2007–08 Finals MVP performance gave the former Boston coach his only championship, and the Celtics their first in over 20 years. Despite his years in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, when you picture Paul Pierce, it will always be in green and white. The Inglewood native is as Bostonian, and adored by Bostonians, today as he was 10 years ago. When The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach asked Pierce about what it felt like knowing the franchise benefited so much from his Nets trade, he replied, “Hey, that’s just me giving back.”

The standing ovation at the TD Garden began before Pierce’s name was called, before his picture was shown, or before his tribute video began.

Tears welled in his eyes as he waved to the city, which was very much still his. He kissed Lucky the Leprechaun at midcourt like it was ’07, and the game began. After a scoreless three minutes, the bench came calling, and Pierce returned to the role he plays now, watching as his new team struggled against his former.

As a Celtic, Pierce was the guy begging for the ball late in the game. He welcomed pressure. This season, the Celtics have found their most lethal closer since in the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas. Before Sunday’s matchup, he was running a streak of four straight games with 35 or more points — it was the longest for any Celtic since 2001, when Pierce did the same.

Pierce lavished Thomas with compliments prior to the game, ranking him “easily the best point guard in the Eastern Conference.” When reporters relayed the comment to Thomas, 12 years Pierce’s junior, he melted into fandom and said he wanted him to autograph a jersey.

The two will likely be teammates for 24 hours at the end of the season. In October, Pierce expressed the desire to sign a one-day contract to retire a Celtic. Against the Clippers, Boston felt the same way, begging the away team’s coach to put in the veteran. Chants of “We want Paul” and “Thank you, Paul” erupted each quarter and each substitution.

Once the Clippers loss was sealed, Pierce reentered to an eruption of cheers. The forward never before went scoreless in Boston, but with only 19.8 seconds left, it seemed like that record was in jeopardy. He inbounded the ball on the final possession to Austin Rivers, who took it up the court, dribbled to the right, and gave it back to Pierce, standing just behind the arc.

We’re lucky as viewers to have one more chance to see this Paul Pierce with the ball as time ticks away. His career highlights sparkle with these moments, and for the final time, set up by the son of his friend, mentor, and coach, he was having one more. Thomas was guarding him loosely, perhaps because the game was over by then, or perhaps out of respect. When Pierce threw up a final 3-point attempt, Thomas barely put up a hand in contention, his eyes, along with the rest of the Garden’s, following the ball.

For the last time in Boston, the 3 that came nearly at the buzzer was Paul’s.

107–102, Celtics.