The last time the Celtics were this reliant on Paul Pierce offensively, it was six years ago. They were losing 18 consecutive games, they were in a fight to the bitter end for the top spot in the draft lottery, and the captain was quietly wondering whether he could swing a trade to leave Boston and find his way to a contending team.
It's easy to forget now, with the Celtics' roster decked out with superstars and the team making five straight deep playoff runs, but this used to be the norm. It used to be all Paul, all the time. They didn't have a choice.
But in 2012? It's jarring to see the post-Ubuntu C's relying so heavily on one player, and it makes you wonder if this team has some serious issues to overcome before they can really think about contending in the Eastern Conference.
Two nights ago, Pierce dropped 40 points on 13-of-16 shooting, and the Celtics blew away the Cavaliers at home, 103-91. Tonight, they could have used another 40. Pierce's 35-point effort, including a heroic game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime, wasn't enough. The C's lost 99-94 in OT, their third loss in four games against the Milwaukee Bucks this season.
The truth is that The Truth needs some teammates.
"When everybody's not making shots and you're down," coach Doc Rivers deadpanned, "you're just looking for whoever is making shots."
Pierce made 13 shots tonight, on 23 attempts, and just for fun he tossed in 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals. For the guys around him, though, it was a nightmarish game. Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo all struggled mightily, and the Celtics ran out of steam.
"I've always said it's a make-miss league, and if tonight wasn't evidence of that," Rivers said. "We had point-blank looks at the rim all through the game. We had one of the best shooters in the NBA in JET. We had Kevin. We got them great shots, but we just couldn't make them, and as the game went on, we pressed more and more to make them and just couldn't."
Garnett was playing his game all night long, finding his sweet spots on the floor and taking shots he's made all season. He had turnaround jump hooks in the lane; he had mid-range jumpers from the top of the key. He had his bread and butter shots, and they didn't fall.
Then there was Terry, who was even worse. The lauded sharpshooter had his worst game as a Celtic, going 1-for-15. Just one of those 14 misses goes down, and it's a whole different game.
"For me, this was a tough night," Terry said. "This was a tough one to swallow. Close ballgame, team needs you, and you just couldn't get it done. I take this one on my shoulders. I'll be back in here tomorrow working on what I need to get this right."
Pierce, however, deflected questions about the offense struggling around him. Like a good captain, he defended his teammates by changing the subject. He talked about defense.
"It's a team game," he said. "Regardless of how I'm playing, we have to do better in stretches. When our offense isn't going for long stretches, we've got to be able to defend. When we go into the fourth quarter up seven or eight, we've got to find a way to win. We've got to get stops after stops after stops. It just comes and goes in stretches right now."
Maybe so, but was defense really the Celtics' problem tonight? The Bucks shot 43.4 percent from the field, respectable but by no means dazzling. Monta Ellis was their leading scorer with 27, but he shot 9-of-21 to get there. Milwaukee finished with just 88 points in regulation; even with the OT, they didn't reach the century mark.
No, this one was about the offense. It was about the Celtics, a team normally bolstered by its depth and balance, failing to find any offense beyond one guy. Pierce scored 35 points tonight, and Boston's other four starters combined for 24. That won't do.
"It was just one of those nights," Rivers said. "They didn't come into tonight wanting to miss, or not ready. The ball just wouldn't go in."
Maybe next time, it will. For their sanity's sake if nothing else, the Celtics had better hope so.