Bradley Beal was a bit startled when he heard the distinctive voice. It was urgent and direct. “Get out of the way!” The voice belonged to Paul Pierce, the wily, creaky, 17th-year NBA veteran, and there was no time for indecision. The Washington Wizards were trying to avoid the biggest meltdown of this year’s NBA playoffs — having blown a 21-point lead against the Atlanta Hawks — when the chance to win Game 3 in regulation came down to putting the basketball into the hands of the oldest player on the court.
The Wizards were built for this moment to generally ride with John Wall. But what they knew all along was emphatically proven during the 103-101 victory that was won by Pierce’s 21-foot, fadeaway jumper that banked in as time expired. They have another undeniable brick for the most critical times in Pierce, while Wall, the all-star guard, watches from the bench and nurses the fractured left hand that has sidelined him indefinitely. In the final seconds on Saturday night, Pierce issued his urgent directive after getting a pick from Beal, which forced a defensive switch that left him matched up against Dennis Schroder.
In a one-on-one matchup, Schroder, in his second NBA season, gives up six inches and 65 pounds to Pierce. But there was no time, nor the space on the floor, for Pierce to pound inside. He instead dribbled across the top of the key, and launched a step-back bank shot as three Hawks — including Schroder — desperately waved while Pierce crashed his 6-7, 235-pound body to the floor. And as the Verizon Center erupted in bedlam. “A lucky shot,” is what Schroder, 21, called it afterward.
When this was mentioned to Pierce, 37, he chuckled and thought the kid had mixed reality with some video game. “He’s a little young,” Pierce responded. “He hasn’t been able to see it for 17 years. He probably missed with me, playing (NBA) 2K.” Every team needs a Pierce, who has brought the wisdom of what it takes to win an NBA championship with him to town and pretty much defies whatever luck Schroeder speaks of. He merely provides the Wizards the type of backbone that allows them — after winning pivotal Game 3 — a legitimate shot of stunning the top-seeded Hawks and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, which the franchise hasn’t done in 36 years.
Yeah, some luck. That particular game-winning shot is something that Pierce has dropped repeatedly in practice sessions while matched against 6-11 center Marcin Gortat. “We knew it was coming,” insisted Wizards forward Otto Porter. “You thought that was just luck?” Regardless, Pierce bailed the Wizards out when they needed him the most. Since Wall, the uber-playmaker, went down in the Game 1 win, the general consensus was that their season was finished.
Maybe it still is. But for much of Saturday’s game, the Wizards demonstrated how they have a fighting chance against the Hawks – who they nearly beat in Game 2 — with balance. Five players scored in double figures, including Nene, who matched Beal and Porter for the team highs with 17 points, and set an early tone with an inside presence that took advantage of the early-game absence of flu-stricken Hawks all-star power forward Paul Millsap.
Beal, meanwhile, was the most reliable distributor with eight assists. The Wizards were aggressive on defense. And they got quality minutes off the bench. Including Porter’s 17 points and nine rebounds in nearly 40 minutes. Will Bynum chipped in as the next-man-up point guard, and Drew Gooden III was another capable body to relieve the big men. It was team basketball, which undoubtedly resonated with Wall, too, who popped up from his seat next to the assistant coaches to engage during timeouts and offer insights.
But the all-for-one effort also illuminated the reality the Wizards must live with for the near future, and perhaps until the end of the season, pending Wall’s recovery and return. There is no replacement for Wall. Compensating for his loss can only go so far. Coach Randy Wittman saw the efficiency, if not the energy, melt down the stretch. Suddenly, as the fourth quarter dragged on and the 21-point lead dissipated, the Wizards walked the ball up the court and lost rhythm. That’s where Wall’s absence really hit home. Twice in the final 4 ½ minutes, they turned the ball over on shot-clock violations.
“A little disappointing,” summed up Pierce, who finished with 13 points in 25 ½ minutes. “We’re better than that. To be up by 21 and then have it come down to that. … They say you can learn things from a loss, but we can learn from a win, too.” They learned they can count on Pierce, whose NBA highlight reel is filled with last-second glory shots from his years with the Boston Celtics. “I usually like to save some of those type of shots for the later rounds,” he said.
Of course, without the big shot on Saturday, there might not be a later round. Nor would there be the sense of confidence the Wizards gained by winning without Wall, which so many suspect they can’t accomplish. “It would have been nice to stay up by 20 and win,” Gooden told reporters gathered at his locker. “But Paul hitting that shot was even better.”
Huh? It’s about the vibe. A subplot of the NBA playoffs is the response of teams losing so many key players to injuries, and the Wizards just received a huge jolt as they try to proceed without Wall. “I watch the games on TV, too,” Gooden explained. “I saw how Derrick Rose hit that shot, and the whole arena went crazy. The whole city of Chicago got fired up.” “Well, it’s the same thing. Everything happens for a reason. You saw what our place was like after Paul hit that shot. If we won by 20, we wouldn’t have had that reaction.”
Of course, these playoffs have also shown how momentum doesn’t necessarily carry over from one game to the next. But at least they have a bit more hope, thanks to Pierce’s presence. “What’s his nickname?” Beal asked. “The Truth. That’s the answer.” At least it is for the moment.