Joe Johnson's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, the absurdity of it all so hard to fathom.

That's the way it is when a team bursting with championship expectations just a few weeks ago hadn't won consecutive games all season.

"Man, you know what?" Johnson said incredulously after the Nets knocked off the Celtics 104-96 at the Barclays Center Tuesday night for their second straight win, a wacky milestone if ever there was one. "I didn't even think about that or put that into play. But you just have to kind of smile and chuckle at it because, man, it was something I never ever envisioned coming into the season."

Not with the Nets (7-14) supposed to be one of the league's elite teams after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston. That's why this wasn't just any old game for those two, even if they insisted they're emotionally detached from their time with the Celtics (10-13). And with Pierce making his return from a right hand injury and coming off the bench for just the fourth time in his 16-year career, and Deron Williams back after missing the previous nine games with a sprained left ankle, it only added to the intrigue of their matchup with the surprising Atlantic Division leaders.

Williams ignited the Nets with a season-high 25 points and seven assists, and Brook Lopez added 24 points, propelling them to a win over the former teammates of Garnett and Pierce.

"I was already past that," said Pierce, who didn't hear his name called in the starting lineup for the first time since the 2006-07 season and didn't dent the scoring column until draining a pair of free throws with 1:14 left in the third quarter.

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"My whole focus was about getting back healthy, coming out trying to help my team, establishing something at home. It just happens to be a coincidence that the day I come back is against the Celtics. It will probably be a little bit more emotional when I go back to Boston. We already had a preseason game against them. I already had a chance to holler at them in the preseason."

Pierce, wearing what he called a glove on his hand, said he still felt some discomfort and his shot was short as he tried to get used to the new apparatus. Almost like coming off the bench, something coach Jason Kidd suggested he might continue to have the veteran do.

"It was just a different mental approach to the game," said Pierce, who had started all but three of his previous 1,117 games. "You've got to be ready when your number is called. That's what I try to do, provide leadership whether it's in the starting lineup or the bench. To help out the bench, I have to be a leader for the second unit, and I thought we really played well tonight. We played together, we played defense, we were able to keep the lead and did what we were supposed to do."

Garnett, who reached double digits in scoring for the first time since Nov. 26 and just the third time this season, totaled 11 points and nine rebounds. He also downplayed the significance of taking down his old team, though he made it his duty to alter his typical routine in the seconds leading up to the opening tipoff, fist-bumping Boston's starting five and giving them mini hugs.

"Because Doc Rivers isn't over there, it's probably a little less emotional," Garnett said of his former coach. "You don't see Danny Ainge sitting on the side, you don't see Paul Pierce over there, Ray Allen, Eddie House. I saw Rajon Rondo over there, which makes it a little more emotional at times. Those are solid guys that I went to battle with. Other than that, it was another night in the office."

But he eventually conceded: "It will always be a special place in my heart when I face the green."

The Nets looked as if they were having fun, getting up the floor and actually converting easy buckets for once, a rarity during their early-season swoon. They had it going offensively, shooting a season-high 55 percent in the first half and also were on the right side of a 46-24 advantage on points in the paint through three quarters.

Still, with all those good first-half vibes, the Nets couldn't easily put the Celtics away and were outscored 24-19 in the fourth quarter, needing some clutch free throws from Lopez, Williams and Alan Anderson to seal it late with Mikhail Prokhorov's top sports advisor, Sergey Kushchenko, watching from courtside.

"We're building," Pierce said. "We're trying to get there. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. It's just two wins. We're not even in the playoff picture right now, so we are just going to continue to build, take one step at a time and go from there."