Pierce, KG brace for Boston return

Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo exchanged preseason pleasantries in Brooklyn. Boston is another story. Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

During the heyday of the Boston Celtics' most recent Big Three era, there was a video clip of Larry Bird talking about Boston fans that used to run as players took the court for pregame warm-ups.

Kevin Garnett, already dripping with sweat and intensity while preparing for that night's game, would never look up at the video board (the only time he allowed himself that was when Gino was dancing away the final minutes of another lopsided victory), but Garnett heard every word spoken.

"It's funny, they have a little pregame thing they used to always [play]," Garnett explained. "I used to always hear Larry Bird. I would never look up, but I would hear it. Larry would say, 'You can't fool the people of Boston. They know when you're working hard, they know pure basketball.' And that's right. When you go all out, they understand that and they root for that, and that's what they remember."

On Sunday evening, 214 days after the Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets originally agreed to the blockbuster trade that ended the Boston tenure of Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two players return to TD Garden for the first time to play against their former team.

It's been suggested that the Celtics ought to hand out complimentary boxes of Kleenex as fans enter the building. We've been down this path before, with Boston fans having saluted the efforts of other recent heroes from the Big Three era and the 2008 title team. Boston fans roared for Eddie House, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins and even put rivalries aside when Ray Allen returned as a member of the Miami Heat.

In December, Doc Rivers was overcome with emotions when the team honored him after the first quarter of his first game back to Boston as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Rivers later noted his Boston return was as emotional as he gets, and he had to collect himself numerous times after the game while simply discussing the in-game tribute.

Now, Pierce and Garnett must endure the same.

Rivers imagines Garnett, and especially Pierce, who spent the first 15 seasons of his NBA career in Boston, will likewise have trouble focusing on the game while returning to the Garden and hearing a sellout crowd serenade them for what they accomplished here by restoring championship basketball.

"I think the reason the city loved them both is because they did it right and they did everything they could every night to win a basketball game," Rivers said. "Cities feel that. … And [Boston] saw that in Kevin and Paul. And they were champions. So when you do that for a city, it is going to be received well, so they will have a great night."

Even with the Nets starting to play their most consistent basketball of the season -- winning nine of their last 10 overall -- both Garnett and Pierce seemed to be bracing themselves for Sunday's reunion, even as these rebuilding Celtics have dropped 13 of their last 15.

"I just know that the emotions will probably be high, just because of the success that we had while we were in Boston," Garnett said. "We had some really good years there, some really promising years. I think it's going to be forever, we're embedded in it. ... I think anybody who's part of that run and part of that era will always be remembered. Bostonians, New Englanders, they understand that and they never forget their favorites. We was fortunate to be part of that whole transformation. Some things are forever, man. I'm happy to say that I'm part of that era."

Later Garnett added, "You've got to understand that everything we put into the six years, we were invested in, we put everything into it. I think the people of Boston and New England and Mass., they all understood that. I think they saw the appreciation and the hard work that went into that, the effort more than anything. "

Both Pierce and Garnett went out of their way to delay this moment. Neither visited the Garden when the Nets came to town for a preseason matchup in October. As excited as they appear to be to return here and see familiar faces, they also know it will be emotionally draining.

"Lot of emotions," Pierce said. "You played your whole life there, won a championship there. First time coming to the Bean, I never thought it would happen, but it is and it'll be here Sunday."

The person with the toughest task Sunday: The poor guy tasked with cramming career retrospectives for both Garnett and Pierce into the small bites that will run during the game. It's impossible to sum up Pierce's 15 years in 120 seconds. Garnett crammed a lifetime of memories into six seasons.

It's expected that Garnett will be honored first at the first timeout in play; Pierce will get his tribute after the first quarter. Those extended timeouts from being a national TV game will help matters.

But, somehow, those players and the fans in attendance will have to collect themselves and get through three more quarters of play.

For their part, members of the Boston Celtics are somewhat indifferent about Sunday's much-hyped battle. Ever since the trade that overhauled the franchise and ushered in a new era, Boston's young core has tried to carve out its own identity. Even Rajon Rondo, the only holdover from the championship team and the Big Three glory days, initially shrugged off Friday's meeting, noting, "It's another game. We need the win."

On Saturday, he again suggested that he won't shed any tears. He's come to peace with seeing Garnett and Pierce move on. The trio still exchange text messages, but Rondo, the new captain of the Celtics, is more interested in the on-court trash-talking that will occur between three insanely competitive former teammates.

This is one of Boston's few national TV appearances, and the Celtics know the spotlight is more a result of who is visiting than interest in their own team. Boston is trying to find the balance between acknowledging what Garnett and Pierce did for this team, while also focusing on the game and trying to restore this team to contender status (even if that's a slow climb back that won't be accelerated by one win; even if the Celtics do have a vested interest in Brooklyn's future success after landing three first-round picks and the ability to swap another in the summer swap).

Celtics first-year coach Brad Stevens said he'll hurry his team in and out of the huddle before the in-game video tributes run, just so his team can join with the fans to celebrate what Garnett and Pierce meant to this organization.

But the moment will belong more to those players and the fans than it will to a new-look Boston roster. Brandon Bass, who spent two seasons with Pierce and Garnett noted on Saturday that, every time he sees a video tribute, he imagines one for himself down the road.

The easiest route to a Jumbotron celebration is to help secure a title trophy, because Boston fans understand the hard work needed to get back to that point. It's why they'll shower Garnett and Pierce with cheers during Sunday's game.