Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman addressed the question in a variety of ways a couple times per week in cities across the country, before and after games, for almost nine months.
The gist of the reporter’s questions: “What kind of impact has Paul Pierce had on your team?” Nearly every time, Wittman would answer: Pierce has had a tremendous influence, both on and off the court. He’s a future Hall of Famer who garners respect, the kind of piece the team needed to take the next step.
The 17-year veteran’s imprint was largest in the playoffs, when the Wizards needed it most. But their season concluded in the most devastating of ways with a 94-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night, when Pierce’s game-tying three-pointer was overturned after referees determined he did not release the ball before the final buzzer. After the game, an emotional Pierce said he wasn’t sure whether he would return next season. Pierce, 37, has a player option for $5.5 million. Wittman said late Friday that he believes Pierce will return for his 18th season.
“I’d love him back. I think he wants to be back. I don’t know, I won’t put words in his mouth, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t,” Wittman said. “I think what he saw with these guys and the heart this team has . . . why wouldn’t you want to play the end of your career with a group like that?”
Pierce arrived in Washington with one goal beyond winning as many games as possible: to help. While with the Brooklyn Nets last season, Pierce watched John Wall and Bradley Beal emerge on the postseason stage for the first time. He admired the duo from afar. When he decided to join the Wizards last summer, he sought to guide them. The Wizards, he repeated over and over, would go as its two young stars would go.
“I just came here and was going to be myself,” Pierce said. “Nothing different. A veteran guy in the locker room. Lead by example. Lead vocally. I could be an influence positively each and every day. Those are the some of the things I tried to do. Tell them how I felt, whether good or bad. It’s only going to make them better. Everything I tried to bring here was not selfish. It was to help better everyone else.”
Barely used last season, Otto Porter Jr., the third pillar in the Wizards’ future and Pierce’s backup, was added to Pierce’s fold, the objective being to instill confidence in the soft-spoken second-year forward. The three youngsters were all ears and often carried Washington in the playoffs, attributing Pierce’s leadership as part of their maturation.
“My job was just to help them learn, help them grow as young players and have them understand what it takes to win in this league throughout an 82-game season and how hard it is to win in this league,” Pierce said. “I think they got a good understanding. It’s about the preparation, each and every day how you go about your business. I think these guys saw that. Hopefully it will carry over for the rest of their career.”
Pierce averaged career lows across the board during the regular season but was unleashed for the postseason. He was used at power forward for long stretches — something Wittman insisted he avoided during the regular season despite its success to save Pierce’s legs for the playoffs — and averaged 14.6 points on 48.5 percent shooting, including 52.4 percent from three-point range, in 29.8 minutes.
But he became the center of attention for more than his production. A comment he made in an interview with ESPN, questioning whether the Toronto Raptors had “it,” became the story line of their first-round series. He proceeded to shoot and taunt the Raptors out of the postseason with a sweep.
He encountered a tougher assignment at both ends of the floor against the Hawks in the second round — he shot a combined 4 of 16 in the final two games and had trouble on defense, particularly defending the stronger and faster Paul Millsap in isolation. But he took the go-ahead or game-tying shot with less than 10 seconds remaining in each of the final four games. He made three of the attempts, including when he called “game” with a jumper off the glass at the buzzer in Game 3. By Game 6, the Wizards team store was stocked with licensed T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “I called game!”
Pierce then shouted “series” at the Hawks’ bench when he drained a go-ahead three-pointer with 8.3 seconds left in Game 5, but the Wizards would go on to lose that game, and three of the final four. There’s a chance that was Pierce’s final act in a Wizards uniform. His coach hopes not.
“Guys like him that are Hall of Famers never cease to amaze you, and I thought he was a real big lift for us this year,” Wittman said. “Not only what he did on the floor but his leadership and direction that he gave us in the locker room with these guys. You can’t coach that. That’s something you either have or you don’t. He’s got it. He gave us all he could in these two series. We rode him.”
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