Paul Pierce shook his head and gave a frustrated chuckle. The Celtics had just finished a dispiriting opening-game loss to the Hawks, and Pierce had muffed his last shot, a running layup in garbage time.
He sounded like he was resigned to the fact that the Celtics' defeat, as the losses often are, was on him. He promised to do more offensively in future games, even embracing the responsibility.
"I thought I really had good looks, and for us to win, I have to be better player," Pierce said. "That's just what it is. I have to knock down the shots. I have to be aggressive on the offensive end. I have to do my job defensively on Joe Johnson. I thought I was a really big culprit of [the loss]."
Pierce's tasks will increase in Game 2, when the Celtics will be without point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo was ejected late in Sunday's game for arguing a call and bumping referee Marc Davis, drawing a one-game suspension for the latter. The league's most prolific passing team therefore lost its most prolific passer. And the team's second-best distributor is not guards Avery Bradley or Keyon Dooling — it's the do-everything 34-year-old small forward out of Kansas.
One of the Celtics' strengths is that each player on the team has a defined role, which allows that player to hone in on one or two things. Not Pierce. Pierce has long accepted the reality that his versatility is a gift and a curse. His all-around skills have made him a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but because of them, there is no area in which he gets a free pass.
When defenders on the perimeter fail to stop the ball or 3-point shooters are firing blanks, few wonder why Kevin Garnett did not switch onto the opposing point guard or step out beyond the arc. Yet Pierce draws questions about any breakdown the Celtics suffer, because Pierce is the one player uniquely talented to address nearly any weakness the Celtics display.
Pierce does not have Rondo's creativity, and he will never approach Rondo's crazy 49.8 assist percentage, which essentially means Rondo assists every other basket the Celtics score while he is on the court. Pierce compiled a season-high 14 assists against the Magic in mid-April, whereas Rondo matched or eclipsed that total 18 times this season. With Pierce running the point-forward, it will become even more mandatory for Boston to slow the pace, as Pierce will not be able to score, distribute and defend at a high tempo without burning out quickly.
The Celtics made it through 13 games without Rondo this season largely because Pierce was able to adapt his game. For one last time this season — more accurately, for what the Celtics hope is the last time this season — Pierce will need to expand his game again in the most pivotal of games.