BOSTON – Paul Pierce walked back onto the parquet floor one last time, dropped to his knees at center court and gave the Boston Celtics leprechaun logo a big kiss.
“Lucky’s been through it all with me, the ups and downs. He helped me out on a couple of occasions,” the former Celtics captain said. “It’s the last time I’m going to touch this floor as a player. I’m sure I’ll be back as a fan.”
With a deafening cheer and a shout of “Let’s go, Pats,” Pierce was back in Boston on Super Bowl Sunday to give Celtics fans one last chance to celebrate the player who helped the NBA’s most-decorated franchise return to the top of the league.
Restored to the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting lineup by current and former coach Doc Rivers, Pierce was greeted with a long and loud ovation at his introduction, when the new Boston Garden rang out again with his nickname: The Truth. A highlight video at the first timeout appeared to bring him to tears.
“Fans really showered me with a lot of love,” Pierce said after the Celtics won 107-102. “You really don’t know what you’ve meant to a team while you’re playing. It hit me a lot tonight, but I’m sure it’s going to hit me a lot more when I’m done playing.”
After starting the game – his first appearance for the Clippers since New Year’s Eve, Pierce sat on the bench until the game was out of reach. But in the final seconds, with the fans already standing and cheering, Pierce launched a 3-pointer for one final eruption.
“I’m glad I was able to cap it off, my last game in the Garden,” he said. “At least I can just say I put one last bucket in at the end of the game.”
A first-round draft pick out of Kansas in 1998, Pierce toiled in Boston through the down years of M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino, watching as the once-proud team lost a franchise-record 18 games in a row while he was injured in 2006-07. The next year, after the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston won its NBA-record 17th championship.
But as the New Big Three aged, general manager Danny Ainge traded them – and Rivers – off for the draft choices that would help them rebuild. Pierce spent time in Brooklyn and Washington before reuniting with Rivers in Los Angeles.
Having announced that he will retire at the end of the season, Pierce’s last visit to Boston became a must-see event.
He spent Saturday visiting some old Boston favorites and recording it – including a chance encounter with current Celtics all-star Isaiah Thomas – on Instagram. In the final seconds, Thomas shared the spotlight with him again, backing off to allow the 2008 NBA Finals MVP a clean shot.
“If you give it your all here and win a championship they will love you,” Thomas said. “It drives me a lot. I want to be like that: give my blood, sweat and tears and come back and play your last game here. That type of love is unforgettable.”
Pierce’s No. 34 Celtics jerseys filled the crowd – more visible even than the Patriots shirts worn by fans looking to rush home after the game to watch the Super Bowl. (During a silent moment in national anthem, a shout came from the stands: “Let’s go, Pats!”)
Pierce played the first five minutes and missed the first shot of the game. He was still 0 for 1 when went to the bench at the first timeout. (He did not return in the first half, and early in the second the Garden crowd broke into a chant of “We want Paul!”)
But that didn’t dampen the emotion of the highlight video that followed him from Kansas to the draft, showing him posing with Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, hitting game-winning baskets and raising the NBA championship and finals MVP trophies.
The sold-out Garden stood and cheered for more than a minute. Pierce waved, blew kisses to the crowd and appeared to lose his composure, taking several deep breaths and wiping his eyes with a towel.
Rivers said he told his players before the game to pay attention.
“When you finish your career, remember what’s going to happen in five minutes,” Rivers recalled telling them. “All of you aren’t going to be Hall of Famers, but just remember that when you finish your career, you’re empty and you can walk away with no regrets. That’s what Paul’s doing tonight.”
Rivers, who was the Celtics coach in both the depths of the 2006-07 season and when they won it all the next year, said he had a plan for Pierce to return at the end but wanted to win the game, too.
“Him making that shot just, I don’t know what the heck that is,” Rivers said. “That only happens here.”
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