As he walked off the corner of the Verizon Center court Friday night, Paul Pierce looked into the crowd and saluted once, twice, three times. He tossed his headband into the stands and flicked his wrist band at another group of fans. And then Pierce ducked his head and disappeared down the tunnel, a quiet exit after a sickening end, another piece of him left behind, maybe for the final time.
“Truthfully, what was going through my mind is, I don’t have too much of these efforts left, if any,” Pierce said. “These rides throughout the NBA season, throughout the playoffs, are very emotional. They take a lot out of not only your body, but your mind, your spirit.”
Moments earlier, Pierce had been awash in chaos, standing amidst roaring fans in the opposite corner of the floor. He had drained a three-pointer at the buzzer over Kyle Korver’s outstretched hand, his body falling away, his heels hovering over the out-of-bounds line. Another capstone in a Hall of Fame career. Overtime beckoned. And then: agony. And then, maybe, the end.
Only the ball had stayed on Pierce’s fingertips one imperceptibly small quantity of time too long. Officials waved off the shot, the kind the Washington Wizards entrusted him to take in four consecutive games. Their season had ended with a 94-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Pierce’s moment of redemption had vanished. His career, suddenly, hung in the balance.
Pierce has a $6 million player option for next season. He will consult with his children, his wife and his mother before he decides to play for Washington next season, he said, or whether he will play at all. The 37-year-old future Hall of Famer, after a 17-year career that included a championship in Boston and a revival in Washington, may have played his final game.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to play basketball anymore,” Pierce said.
Game 6 reminded him why he may walk away, of the toll the game takes. Pierce scored only four points on 1-for-7 shooting, committed four fouls and had just one turnover. The Hawks attacked him on defense, leading to 25 points for DeMarre Carroll and 20 for Paul Millsap, who battered him in the post.
The Wizards still wanted the ball in his hands at the end. Down three with 6.1 seconds left, Pierce lined up at the foul line and weaved through traffic toward the corner. He was the third option in Coach Randy Wittman’s huddle, he said, but his teammates turned to him, anyway. He launched the ball over Korver from the corner, watched it fall and puffed his chest.
“We always say it’s a game of inches, split seconds,” Pierce said. “So many things come into play.”
The challenge will not chase him. Not even the heartache will. The toll of both in the hours he is not inside an area could.
“It affects not only you, but the people around you,” Pierce said. “Days like this, you go home and you’re around your family, you don’t feel like talking to them or doing anything because of what the game does. It takes a bit out of you. You go home, and it’s not a good day. It affects the people around you. It’s tough. People think you just play basketball, go home and your body is sore. No. Mentally, the people around you, it affects. I know I’ll go home and won’t have any words for my wife or my mom. Probably the only thing that can through to me right now is my kids. They bring me joy.”
Pierce’s eyes reddened as he spoke. And yet, in another breath, he left the door to return ajar.
“It’s probably going to be the hardest thing I ever have to do, is put the game down,” Pierce said. “But I know that time is coming one day.”
Through the magnetic force of his charisma, the audacity of his words and the import of his shots, Pierce made the first five games of the Eastern Conference semifinals very much about him. Through the design of their offense, the Hawks made the decisive Game 6 very much about him, too, only in a matter that turned Pierce from a swaggering veteran into a helpless target.
Friday evening, the Wizards sold T-shirts emblazoned with the catchphrase, “I called game!”, the pop-up mantra Pierce coined after he banked in the Game 3 winner. John Wall referenced Pierce as inspiration to play with five broken bones in his left hand.
In Pierce’s first spring with the Wizards, Washington embraced the 37-year-old as both a clutch-shot artist and glass-pounding hockey hype man. The Wizards had seen other accomplished veterans — from Mitch Richmond to Michael Jordan — come to Washington and stagger through lost seasons. Pierce delivered. When he drained a go-ahead corner three-pointer with 8.3 seconds in Game 5, Pierce turned to the Hawks’ bench and shouted, “Series!” He possessed the gall and the game to inform the top seed of its own demise.
From that moment, though, the series Pierce had imbued with his poise and his magic turned into a nightmare. His reach on Dennis Schroder’s drive may have enabled Al Horford’s game-winning putback in Game 5. He struggled on both ends in Game 6. But the teammates and the city that embraced him still treated him with reverence.
“Guys like him that are future Hall of Famers never cease to amaze you,” Wittman said. “Not only what he did on the floor. The leadership he showed, you can’t coach that. He’s got it.”
Afterward, Pierce told his teammates, “I’ll go to war with you any time.” But time may be up for The Truth.
“I’m never going to have no regrets, whether I hang it up now or later,” Pierce said. “I know that people who have been around me all these years know that Paul Pierce came every day, left it out there every day. I know I left everything out there.”
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