This is how it was supposed to be.
Any notions of a cakewalk for the Celtics were put to bed Tuesday night when the Hawks erased a 10-point lead in the second quarter and put themselves a 27-footer by Rajon Rondo away from leading at the break. Atlanta made it a game in the first half, then won the game in the second. The Celtics are left with a pressure-filled Game 6 Thursday night to avoid an elimination game on the road.
Notions of cruising into the second round without resistance were optimistic from the start. The Celtics were always a tweaked knee or separated shoulder away from being vulnerable. Other playoff teams share that same vulnerability, but we've reached a point in the series where the Hawks are suddenly healthier than the Celtics. A week ago, the opposite was true. Such is playoff basketball.
The problem for the Celtics at the moment is that their most concerning injury concerns their most important player. Paul Pierce's knee is not right, and that's a bigger problem than Ray Allen's ankle, Avery Bradley's shoulder, or Al Horford's chest. As Pierce goes, so go the Celtics.
One regrettable incident dominates the discussion. Pierce needed the aid of a wheelchair after injuring his knee during Game 1 of the 2008 Finals against the Lakers, only to come back and play later in the game. The injury was widely viewed as a farce. Accounts from this reporter and others about Pierce struggling to get up and down the stairs to the podium in the days following the injury didn't much matter in the court of public opinion. Pierce earned the label of a faker.
Like most sports discussions, the one about Pierce's injury history is wrought with hyperbole. It's ammunition for further attacks, and it's probably justified given what transpired later in the series, when Pierce was named Finals MVP. The injury, it turns out, was not as serious as originally thought.
So it goes without saying that Pierce suffering a knee injury during shootaround before Game 3 vs. the Hawks might be viewed with some skepticism. Pierce was just walking and dribbling when he twisted his left knee, according to Doc Rivers. Pierce was questionable until right up before Sunday's game, but he was well enough to score 24 points in 16 minutes. With the game in hand, Rivers didn't need to put strain on his star.
The results were not as encouraging Tuesday during Game 5. Pierce scored 16 points in 36 minutes, but it was evident he was laboring. Offensively-challenged Hawks forward Marvin Williams burned Pierce for 15 points, many of them on jump shots that Pierce simply couldn't close out on. Pierce is hurt, and that's troubling for a player so dependent on lateral movement and angles. The Celtics' captain was seen walking gingerly and favoring his right leg following Sunday night's game, and Pierce appears to have aggravated the injury Tuesday.
An argument can be made for either Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett as the team's most valuable player, but the timing seems off on both. Garnett may have been most valuable in 2008, and Rondo may be in 2013, but this is still very much Pierce's team. The Celtics won Game 2 on the road without Rondo behind 36 points from Pierce. If you can call a triple-double underwhelming, Rondo's performance in Game 3 was just that. Pierce made just three field goals in that game, but he made all 14 of his free throws to finish as his team's leading scorer with 21 points. Even on off nights, Pierce seems to find a way to contribute.
Calling Pierce most valuable is not a knock on Garnett, either, whose 16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in five games are his best numbers since averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds during the 2008 playoffs. If Garnett were injured, the Celtics' chances wouldn't be very good, either, but the lack of options behind Garnett muddy that argument somewhat. If Garnett and Brandon Bass go down, the Celtics go from two reliable big men to none.
Pierce's value is based partially in most observers' inability to pin him down. He does a lot of things well, but he doesn't do one thing better than someone else on his team. The problem is that when you take away or limit a player of Pierce's efficiency, you get drop-offs across the board. That, and Pierce's ability to create his own shot, make this injury a major concern.
The Celtics were never going to steamroll the Hawks, so on last night's game alone, there's no reason to be panicked about their chances going forward. But if Pierce is not right, the Celtics aren't right. Maybe a day off will get Pierce where he needs to be. Maybe he'll come out firing and help the Celtics close the deal in Game 6.
During the playoffs, everything is day-to-day.