The Boston Celtics' 90-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night felt like an afterthought. The championship rings handed out before tip-off were the stars, and their shine almost determined the outcome of the game.
While fans were treated to some late-game drama reminiscent of last year's Second Round playoff series and a couple of eyebrow-raising LeBron James dunks, the lasting memory was, unquestionably, the image of Paul Pierce with the trails of two tears lining his cheekbones.
"You put in this much time through your career and you always talk about ring night and getting a ring," Doc Rivers said. "And when it finally comes you're just not prepared for it."
Strangely enough, once the lights came on and all the dusty eyes were wiped, the only person who really played like it was last season was the one who had his emotions on full display.
Because for most of evening, these weren't the Champion Boston Celtics.
"It was an emotional night," Kevin Garnett said. "It's kind of hard to contain. It's kind of hard to turn the switch on and off."
In the same fashion as the Garden opener last season when he hit all backboard, Garnett's first shot of the night was an airball. Ray Allen had a layup thrown back at him early in the first quarter, and both he and Garnett had uncharacteristically bad, fumbling turnovers. To make matters worse, that vaunted Celtics defense was seemingly lifted away with Banner 17 and the Cavaliers were up 28-22 after the first quarter.
Pierce, however, kept his team afloat and his emotions in check, scoring Boston's first points on a drive-and-dunk.
"It was hard," Pierce said. "I was on the sideline trying to pull myself together, talking to myself. I was able to do it in time, and concentrate on the game."
After the C's were stuck treading water in the second quarter and taking a seven point deficit into halftime, it was Pierce who lead the championship train back to its tracks. The Celtics were 0-of-9 from beyond the arc in the first half, but with Pierce's three on the first possession, and the subsequent revival of Celtics defense, all woes were forgotten.
"We just kind of settled in," Pierce said. "We didn't really play well in the first half defensively, and we are a defensive team. After halftime, emotions got out of the way, and we started to play our brand of basketball."
Fast-forward to the final minutes of the game, the Celtics are up two with the ball. Who else on this night but Pierce would make the clinching play, evading the foul-determined Cavaliers and finding Leon Powe under the hoop for a dunk and a foul that would seal the victory.
And that's all that really matters now, the Celtics got the W. The day before, Pierce had referenced the Miami Heat's first game following their 2006 title, when they lost 108-66 to the Chicago Bulls after receiving their rings, and if anything can be attributed to his performance, it might be his desire to not be another Miami Heat.
"I've heard so many horror stories about this night, and the whole Miami thing," Rivers said. "I think that's going to be the poster child for any team that wins it: Don't forget the Miami game on national TV with Chicago.
"I'm glad that didn't happen."
For that, the man to thank is the one who, at least for tonight, wore his emotions on his jersey.