'Thank you Paul!'

Paul Pierce savors final Boston appearance before adoring Celtics faithful

Ian Thomsen

BOSTON – From time to time the chants rang out from all around.

Thank you Paul Pierce

Thank you Paul Pierce

On Feb. 5, 1999, he had made his NBA debut in this building with 19 points as the first-round pick of the Boston Celtics. Now, 18 years later to the day, Pierce was taking in his goodbye from the bench of the visiting Los Angeles Clippers.

We want Paul Pierce

We want Paul Pierce

At age 39 it was as if his memories had come back to life for one last time. And he was not alone in reliving them.

We want Paul

We want Paul

His former team of 15 years — accounting for 10 All-Star appearances, more than 24,000 points and one NBA championship — were on their way to a Sunday afternoon 107-102 victory over his current Clippers. Pierce was dressed in their uniform of black, but his mood was entirely bright. It was all he could do to keep his joy and gratitude from spilling over into tears.

The particulars had been arranged well in advance by Doc Rivers – his championship coach then in Boston, his coach now with L.A. – that Pierce would start his final game in the TD Garden. “I told him it was senior night,’’ joked Rivers, but then his eyes went glassy as he recalled the pregame talk he had given in the visitors’ locker room.

Rivers told his players, “All of you aren’t going to be Hall of Famers, but just make sure when you finish your career, you are empty. Like you’ve done everything you can do. And you walk away with no regrets. That’s what he’s doing tonight. He’s empty. He can walk away from the game with no regrets. He gave it all. If I have one goal for every player in the locker room, that’s my goal for you guys. Just leave it empty.’’

Shorthanded without Chris Paul and yet wanting to do right by Pierce, the Clippers would push this outcome into its final minute. Just before the start, they had watched Pierce drop to his hands and kiss the logo of Lucky the Leprechaun at midcourt. “It’s amazing how many of our players made comments about it,’’ said Rivers. “Like, ‘Wow, these people are amazing.’’’

At times it felt like the old days of May and June. Pierce’s name was the last of the visiting starters to be called forth by public address announcer Eddie Palladino, and it could barely be heard. The roars came at Pierce in waves, rising up each time he raised a hand to wave back. He was the conductor and they were his orchestra for this one last time.

He had been envisioning this game as his goodbye to basketball. “I never felt anything like this,’’ Pierce said. “This is something I truly felt tonight – an appreciation for what I’ve been able to give this city, and what they’ve been able to give me, on the court and off the court too.’’

During a first-quarter timeout the Celtics had played a video in tribute to his Hall-of-Fame career. Pierce knew it was coming but was unprepared nonetheless. The scenes of him being drafted, of posing with Red Auerbach, of the clutch shot-making that drew Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston and of the championship they won — they were altogether too much when married to the love he heard and felt rumbling from up around the championship banners. A teammate helped Pierce up off the bench to his feet, and as he blew kisses and mouthed his thank-yous, he was exhaling hard from a different kind of exhaustion that accumulates over a lifetime. He did not want to cry, and then he did.

“I was sitting next to Jaylen (Brown),’’ said coach Brad Stevens of the Celtics’ rookie, “and saying, ‘This is unique. This isn’t the way it is everywhere.’’’

The Clippers had arrived in Boston on Friday night, giving Pierce and his wife time to revisit the city that he had hated as a child in Los Angeles, where he had grown up as a fan of the Lakers.

“I’ve been in every corner of the city,’’ Pierce said on Saturday at a gym on the campus of Northeastern University, where the Clippers were preparing to hold practice on the eve of this game. “I was driving down Storrow Drive earlier in the day. I usually took that drive into the games. I went down to the North End. Yeah, I was everywhere.’’

Just then he saw Rivers walking toward him with a mock glare. “Paul!’’ his coach yelled. “Let’s go dammit!’’

“Listen,’’ said Pierce, “I’m trying to go.’’ But then Pierce laughed as he ran into someone else he had known for a long time. The friend asked about his family and Pierce said, “Me and the wife are getting out somewhere tonight.’’

“Hey!’’ yelled Rivers, not letting up. “You’re practicing today! Let’s go!’’

On Saturday night Pierce had run into his replacement with the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas, at a Boston steakhouse. Thomas, a two-time All-Star, has become a mini-me version of Pierce – smaller, more explosive, but just as prolific in the biggest moments. Thomas would celebrate some of Pierce’s mannerisms while scoring a game-leading 28 points to hold off Pierce’s Clippers on Sunday. “I told him I’m proud of what he’s been able to do for this organization,’’ Pierce said. “There’s no place like this place in the NBA. And I told him, ‘Enjoy it. Enjoy every moment.’’’

Late in the fourth quarter, when a drum-beat from the arena speakers was meant to coax a chant for defense, the fans refused to go along.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce

They quickened the pace of their chanting. They stood altogether and applauded. They waited and waited.

“If Doc don’t put me back in here,’’ Pierce joked to himself at the time, “they might throw him off the top of this building.’’

When Blake Griffin missed a corner 3-pointer with 19.8 seconds remaining and the game was out of reach, Rivers glanced down the bench to his left. Pierce removed his warmup top. The fans were back on their feet everywhere he looked, as they had been at the end of the victorious 2008 NBA Finals. But this display was not so triumphant as it was sentimental, as if one was echoing the other.

He inbounded to the coach’s son, Austin Rivers, and ran up the court one last time. Pierce had taken and missed the first shot of the game – his only attempt at the basket – and had not played since his five-minute stint in the opening quarter. One of Boston’s most productive scorers was scoreless as the clock ticked down and Thomas backed away.

Pierce, body framed askance, chin up, shot the 3-pointer. It rattled down.

“Just to sit there and come off the bench and hit that shot,’’ said Stevens. “It was a special day.’’

“Him making that shot, I don’t know what the heck that is,’’ said Rivers. “That only happens here. I don’t know who can sit that long and walk in on the floor and make a shot.’’

Ted Williams had homered nobly in his final at-bat at Fenway Park in 1960. Magic Johnson had scored famously at the end of the 1992 All-Star Game. This shot rated somewhere in between those two.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to get it to the rim,’’ Pierce said.

There was, Pierce acknowledged, a hint of pressure attached to this goodbye. Maybe that was why he made the shot. Maybe the stress made him feel comfortably at home.

Thank you Paul

Thank you Paul

Thank you Paul

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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