NEW YORK -- As a rookie, Boston Celtics forward/center Jared Sullinger endured plenty of practice wars with Kevin Garnett. And while Garnett is often just as intense inside the practice facility as he is in front of the cameras on game night, Sullinger didn't quite know what to expect being on the opposite side of Garnett for the first time.
So Sullinger was rather surprised when Garnett dapped him up before the game and offered a hug. He even asked Sullinger how his surgically repaired back was doing.
"Kevin said, 'What's up?' which doesn't really happen," Sullinger said with a smile. "He said, 'What's up?' He was talking to me, asking me how my back was. I wasn't expecting that, but it was Kevin. I guess we're special, I don't know."
Boston's reunion week got off on the wrong foot as the Nets held their own mini-reunion, getting both point guard Deron Williams and another of Boston's old friends, Paul Pierce, back for Tuesday's tilt at the Barclays Center.
Williams stole the show, scoring 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting with seven assists and three rebounds in a 104-96 Brooklyn win. Williams willed in some tough shots down the stretch and ultimately allowed the Nets to fend off Boston's late charge, snapping the Celtics' three-game winning streak in the process.
But Garnett and Pierce did their part, too. Garnett used the green jerseys on the opposite end to give himself a much-needed jump-start, and he chipped in 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting with nine rebounds. He hit a cluster of vintage Garnett midrange jumpers and was the chest-pounding, spit-spewing guy Boston fans remembers oh-so fondly.
Pierce, surprising most by returning early from a fractured right hand, played in a protective black glove. He missed all three shots he took and finished with only four points, but did his familiar give-the-game-what-it-needs routine, which included seven rebounds, three assists and one well-timed fourth-quarter drawn charge.
Both Garnett and Pierce, as well as the former teammates they played with on the Celtics, tried their best to downplay the emotional aspect of Tuesday's meeting.
"Because Doc Rivers isn't over there, it's probably a little less emotional," Garnett said. "You don't see Danny Ainge sitting on the side; you don't see Paul Pierce over there, Ray Allen, Eddie House."
Before he could rattle off other members of the 2008 team, Garnett paused a beat. "I see Rajon Rondo over there, which makes it a little more emotional at times." The two close friends shared a sideline squeeze during a first-quarter break in the action. But, in typical Garnett fashion, he didn't get lost in the moment.
"Those are solid guys that I went to battle with," he said. "Other than that, it was another night in the office, and they have been playing well, they beat the crap out of the Knicks. Obviously, we wanted to come here and play well, but it will always be a special place in my heart when I face the green."
An even-less sentimental Pierce said, "I was already past that. My whole focus was worried about getting back healthy, coming back and trying to help my team establish something at home. It just happens to be a coincidence that the day I come back was against the Celtics. It'll probably be a little bit more emotional when I go to Boston. But we already had a preseason game against them. So I'll move on."
Moving on probably is best for both sides. Through the first quarter of the 2013-14 season, the Atlantic Division has been a bit upside down. The Celtics surprised many by winning six of eight entering Tuesday's game and sat atop the scrap heap while penciled into a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference at the moment.
Brooklyn entered as an utter drink-spilling, assistant coach-demoting, underachieving mess. But Tuesday might have brought a bit of normalcy back to how we expected the season to play out for both teams.
The Nets got a "hey, look what we can do when we're healthy" victory. The Celtics can take solace in how they scrapped their way back in the fourth quarter, surging within five with less than two minutes to play before Brooklyn put the game on ice.
The Celtics rallied around the effort, particularly given the talent in the opposing locker room.
"It was nice to see those guys, nice to go up against those guys," Avery Bradley said. "It was fun. I feel like we definitely had a battle today."
Was it strange playing those guys?
"No, not really," Bradley said. "It wasn't. I thought it [would be] but it wasn't."
And it was Bradley who best rationalized the night.
"It's a long season, so teams are up and down," Bradley said. "Especially the younger teams. It's hard for them to be consistent and come out and play hard every single night for the full game. We want to be one of those teams that are consistent in doing that. … We want to bring that to the table every single night. We know we are not as talented as every other team, but we know that we can work harder than every other team. That's our thing."
The Nets and Celtics will be intertwined for the foreseeable future. With three of Brooklyn's future first-round draft picks in hand, Boston's rebuilding process will hinge in part on Brooklyn's success (or lack thereof).
But maybe Tuesday's game will help Boston's young roster further carve out its own identity. There was so much hype leading up to this game -- and it'll happen again Wednesday when former coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers visit TD Garden -- but with the first head-to-head meeting with Brooklyn behind them, the Celtics don't have that cloud hanging over them anymore.
Now it's just a rivalry between two teams at different stages of their development.
"They got the best of us in Round 1," Jeff Green said. "We'll see them again."
Round 2 in late January will have an emotional tinge as Pierce and KG return to Boston for the first time. That storyline will be impossible to avoid.
But the game itself will just be another opportunity for the Celtics to prove they can hang with what many thought was a championship-caliber opponent. Once the ball goes up, it won't be about where these teams have been. It'll be about where they are going.