If the Celtics follow up their 100-94 win over Washington with a few of the slow-legged showings that have become customary this season, Boston fans will go right back to wondering if it's time to blow up this version of the Big Three.
For at least one day, though, fans who flipped over from Patriots pregame coverage saw Paul Pierce silence the concerns with one of the most efficient performances of his career.
Pierce, who has endured grumblings all season that he is not fully in shape, matched his jersey number and his age with 34 points. The pure volume of his scoring did not do his performance justice. His 34 points came on 10-for-15 shooting and 12-for-15 from the foul line. With Rajon Rondo missing his second straight game with a wrist strain, Pierce also picked up the point guard slack, handing out 10 assists and coming two rebounds shy of a triple-double.
The Celtics, who limped into Washington, D.C., with six losses in their last seven games, needed their captain to act like a leader. Pierce sounded like he knew that as well as anyone.
"I was too passive the last four or five games," said Pierce, who did the bulk of his damage in the second half, when Ray Allen was sidelined with an ankle injury. "That's really not me. I try to set the tone with my offense, and that's what I tried to do."
This week will determine how many observers around the league view the Celtics. Other teams have been slow to write off Boston despite the 5-9 record entering Sunday, because opponents still see Kevin Garnett, Allen, Rondo and Pierce on the roster and assume head coach Doc Rivers will figure things out.
A closer look at the Celtics could change or reinforce that reputation. The Celtics begin the week with three straight games on national television, which will give a wider audience of fans and media a chance to evaluate the Celtics through something other than box scores and highlights. Hoops diehards with no interest in Patriots-Ravens were surely tuned in to see some Sunday afternoon roundball, and what they saw from Pierce probably made them think, "What's everybody in Boston so worried about?"
This was the Wizards, a team that seems to know how to block shots and throw alley-oops but not much else, so the win should be taken with a grain of salt. A home-and-home with the Magic starting Monday will be a better barometer of where the Celtics stand.
If Pierce scored his 34 points on something closer to 50 percent shooting, Sunday's game would have been just another 30-point game on the future Hall of Famer's resume. But with two All-Stars down, the losses starting to pile up and a headstrong young opponent eager to knock off a proud foe, the Celtics needed Pierce to do a little bit of everything.
He didn't. He did a lot of everything, and for the moment brought back a winning vibe.