Paul Pierce came to Washington to do a job.
He came to infuse the Wizards with his brazen confidence, his veteran experience and his championship moxie. He came to show a budding young backcourt how to ignore the pressure of late-game situations and use the opponent’s crowd like an energy drink.
Pierce is near the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, but he signed with the Wizards to show his tank isn’t empty and his tires aren’t bald. He signed to take another stab at a championship – a long shot at best – but a chance nonetheless.
A shot is all you can ask for, like the 3-pointer Pierce took at the buzzer Friday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Falling out of the left corner with Kyle Korver draped all over him, Pierce’s jumper found the bottom of the net, seemingly forcing overtime, adding another chapter to his legend and sending the Verizon Center crowd into delirium.
But officials went to the replay and ultimately waved off the basket, ruling that Pierce released the ball a millisecond after the clock expired. The Atlanta Hawks advanced to the conference finals and the Wizard advanced to their offseason.
“I was just hoping to get a 3 off,” said Pierce, exhausted and emotional after the 94-91 defeat. “I just tried to make sure I was behind the line and make sure I got it off it on time. Unfortunately I didn’t. I wish I could’ve done more and delivered for them.”
In hindsight, Pierce delivered plenty and not just the buzzer-beater that won Game 4 or the big shots against Toronto in the first round.
The Wizards exited this postseason at the same point as last postseason – Game 6 of the second round. But it would be shortsighted to conclude they’re no further ahead. They swept the Raptors after losing all three regular-season games against them. And Washington gave top-seeded Atlanta all it could handle. A fully healthy John Wall easily could’ve been the difference.
Wall said the two endings feel the same to him but he’s in the minority. There’s a sense about the Wizards now Pierce is a big reason, even if the young’uns have to go on without him.
“I don’t know if I’m going to play basketball anymore,” Pierce said. “These seasons get harder and harder the older you get. It’s tough rolling out of that bed every year, every day. The summers are even harder when you start getting back in shape. I’m 37 years old. I have a lot of things to talk to my family about and figure out from there. I’ve loved my time in Washington but I have a lot to think about right now.”
Father Time appeared to be win the battle Friday. Pierce scored four points on 1-of-7 shooting in 24 minutes. The Hawks attacked him mercilessly on defense, especially Paul Millsap who finished with 20 points. Pierce mentioned the ups and downs of a long 82-game season. Game 10 of the postseason was a valley for him.
But he turned back the clock one more time when the Wizards inbounded the ball with 6.4 seconds left. He sunk an incredible shot, keeping his heel elevated to avoid stepping out of bounds. It didn’t count but no one knew that for a few minutes. Especially Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, who helped provide the defense along with Korver.
“When I turned around I saw Paul Pierce shooting the ball,” Carroll said. “I was about to cry and I said ‘not again.’ Fortunately, the basketball gods were on our side and let us get through this one.”
Pierce got through this season, his 17th, getting as much from his teammates as he gave them. They helped him recover his “youthful spirit” and he helped them learn what it takes to be a champion. The D.C. experience was better than he imagined.
“I’m just thankful I was able to have influence on this group and give something to them,” said Pierce, who sounded like he’s leaning toward retiring – though you couldn’t tell if that was the emotion and exhaustion talking.
“Hopefully, if I’m here next year or not, I’ve left something with these young guys they can carry the rest of their careers and understand what it’s like to be a pro. What it’s going to take to take their game and career to the next level.”
The Wizards didn’t get out of the second round again, but this year was different.
Pierce gave them more credibility and confidence, more respect and resolve. You could see it in the way Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter took big steps forward.
Pierce might not be around to watch the next steps. But he accomplished what he came to do.
And that’s the truth.