Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, basketball soul mates and teammates since 2007, are responsible for one NBA championship, several stirring Celtic moments and, most recently, a stirring first-round Game 7 playoff victory.
During their prime together, they terrorized the East. They may have even been part of the reason LeBron James left Cleveland (feeling he needed more help) -- and you wonder if Pat Riley ever thanked KG and Pierce for their indirect role in creating The Decision.
Seven years after they were joined at the hip, Garnett and Pierce are either four losses away from a likely breakup, or four wins away from getting the last laugh against LeBron. It should be a fun playoff series, Nets vs. Heat, a conference semifinal matchup with a conference final feel to it, mainly because of the three main principles.
"That's what it is, man," said Garnett. "The best is playing the best, alright?"
There's a lot of mutual respect in the room, if not love, when they get together. The relationship is that deep and rich and stormy from a competitive standpoint. Garnett and Pierce had their sneakers pressed against LeBron's throat years ago, and then lately, LeBron has made KG and Pierce wonder if they'll ever taste victory champagne again. With the exception of Dwight Howard and Orlando, who had their road to the NBA Finals greased in 2009 by an untimely playoff injury to KG, the Eastern Conference has been won by either LeBron or the soul mates over the last seven years.
"I rank LeBron as one of the greatest performers to ever play the game," said Pierce. "A tremendous athlete, four-time MVP, two-time champion, he's already passed so many greats that we all still talk about. And when you play against the best, as a competitor, you want those moments. He's the ultimate challenge."
Their latest and most likely their final meeting has a weird look to it. Pierce and KG are playing in Brooklyn, not Boston. They're not on the A-list anymore and their All-Star years are well behind them. Garnett in particular is a part-time player with plenty more bark than bite these days. He's an agitator who rebounds and defends in his spare time. Pierce spent his entire career as a player with the ball in his hands, but right now he's the No. 3 option on the Nets. This is new for him and for Garnett.
Yet last Sunday, not only were they on the floor for the final critical play in Game 7 against the Raptors, their fingerprints, quite literally, were all over it. Garnett hounded Toronto's Kyle Lowry and managed to poke the ball loose. When Lowry recovered it, he went for the game-winning shot and was met by a Pierce swat at the buzzer that sent Brooklyn into the second round. For those fleeting seconds, KG and Pierce tag-teamed again in a big moment, and how many times have we seen that before?
They were proud leftovers in Boston two years ago when Ray Allen fled to the Heat to piggyback off LeBron for a championship ring. They treated Allen like a traitor, refusing to communicate with him, all in the name of loyalty, as if that exists in a sport that's all about the almighty dollar and the ring. Then Pierce and KG became casualties of a Celtics overhaul last summer, landing in Brooklyn and asked to bring their championship sensibilities to a franchise that never won one in the NBA.
Oh, we should admit the truth here: KG and Pierce, aging rapidly, are valued because the Nets figured they could make a difference in any playoff showdown with LeBron and the Heat. As you know, there's a history between them. The Nets wanted to seize upon the experience of KG and Pierce in the event of another wrestling match with LeBron. To paraphrase Pierce, this is why they brought them here.
"It's a challenge, it always has been a challenge, even after all these years," Pierce said. "What can I say? His resume speaks for itself."
LeBron dragged the Cavs to the Finals in 2007 in one of the all-time one-man acts in league history. Just a month later, however, the Celtics wrestled KG from his Minnesota purgatory and the balance of power shifted away from LeBron almost instantly. When they met in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, LeBron didn't surrender easily and despite winning 66 games Garnett and Pierce found themselves staring at a Game 7. That's when Pierce and LeBron went nuclear and engaged in their epic duel, Pierce getting 41 points in a winning effort to LeBron's 45.
The following year Boston won 62 games and Cleveland 66 but KG came up lame early in the playoffs and the teams never met. Then came their 2009 series, which changed everything. LeBron won 61 games and grabbed the top seed, amazing in retrospect when you consider he wasn't surrounded by great help in Cleveland. Game 5 is when it came apart for LeBron and his reputation, when he suspiciously sleepwalked through a 3-for-14 shooting performance that to this day has been theorized but never fully explained.
You know how it went down from there: LeBron was vilified for that … then staged an hour-long selection show … then said "not one, not two, not three" during an infamous Miami pep rally … then was booed in every NBA arena, treated as the villain.
LeBron knew he couldn't beat Pierce, Garnett and Allen with Mo Williams. The next season with the Heat, he exacted revenge by erasing the Celtics in five games. Then he enlisted the help of Allen in 2012 and twisted the knife further into KG and Pierce with an epic 45-point Game 6 at the Garden, followed by 31 in Game 7.
It was Michael Jordan figuring out the Bad Boy Pistons all over again, a four-time MVP finally learning how to beat his personal bullies -- and that was how the story was supposed to end. But KG and Pierce landed in Brooklyn, and the Nets rallied from a catastrophic start to reach the second round, and here we are.
"It seems like we've been seeing LeBron for like the last seven, eight years," said Garnett.
LeBron holds a 13-12 playoff edge against KG and Pierce but can't be too thrilled to see them again. The Nets were the only team to own the Heat this season, sweeping them in four games and tagging LeBron with the indignity of having his dunk rejected at the rim by … drum roll, please … Mason Plumlee. Garnett and especially Pierce (who is 32-28 lifetime against LeBron) know their nemesis well and this will help Brooklyn should this series go the limit, which would surprise very few.
"Every team in the playoffs now is better than they were during the regular season," LeBron said.
No matter how the series ends, this will likely be it for KG and Pierce as a duo. A free agent this summer, Pierce is expressing a desire to return to Boston, serve as a mentor for a franchise in transition and retire a Celtic, which would make perfect sense. Garnett has another year left on his contract but as someone who gets fewer minutes than Plumlee, he'll either be a grumpy cheerleader or get shipped off to L.A., where he has a home and can ride out the golden California sunset playing for Doc Rivers.
So this series will drip with nostalgia and we may be witnessing the end of an era. It's expected to be physical -- and personal.