WASHINGTON — The big lead was gone and the crowd was stunned. A devastating loss loomed for the Wizards.
But they signed veteran Paul Pierce last summer for just these precarious situations – with games and seasons on the brink. He said as much during a playoff game last month against the Toronto Raptors.
“That’s why they brought me here!” he yelled on April 24, after a key last-minute 3-point shot put Game 3 of a first-round series out of reach.
And so as the clock wound down on Saturday evening against the Atlanta Hawks and the crowd grew frantic, only Pierce remained calm. He turned on defender Dennis Schroder – with two other Hawks hovering nearby – and banked home the game-saving shot as time expired for a 103-101 victory.
Verizon Center exploded. Pierce claimed during a television interview that he called “game” and not the traditional “bank” as the ball left his hand headed hard for the glass. It was the latest clutch shot from a man who’s spent 17 years making one after another.
“Paul hit them with the famous step-back,” teammate Drew Gooden said. “I thought it was long. It was long. But it went in.”
The Wizards took an improbable 2-1 lead over Atlanta, which finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference, in this best-of-seven series. But even with Washington missing star point guard John Wall because of a broken left wrist, the Hawks couldn’t take advantage, falling behind by as many as 21 points before a furious rally tied the score with 14.1 seconds to go.
The Wizards ran a play they’d put in just the day before at practice. When Wittman called it in the huddle, point guard Ramon Sessions – filling in for Wall – had a thought, but kept quiet.
“I didn’t say anything to anyone else, but in my mind I knew [Pierce] was gonna get a good look,” Sessions said. “Because that’s what he do. He’s a Hall-of-Famer and it’s just showing in this whole playoff run.”
Pierce caught the ball at the top of the free throw circle with his back to the basket, yelled at teammate Bradley Beal to get out of the way to clear some space for him, pivoted left and then stepped back to put just enough distance between himself and Schroder. It’s a shot he practices sometimes against Wizards forward Marcin Gortat, forcing him to get the ball up and over a tall defender. But in this case the 6-foot-7 Pierce had six inches on the smaller Schroder. It was more than enough.
“It kind of looked like, man, he had three people on him,” Beal said. “I was like, ‘Eh – is that a good shot?’ He made it. I was the first one over there.”
Beal raced over to his 37-year-old teammate, prone on his back, arms outstretched, and pummeled him in the chest as other Wizards joined in the celebration. Washington ran that same play in the first half, according to Gooden, and Pierce hit a 3-point shot off it. What was the play Wittman called?
“Give The Truth the ball and see what happens,” teammate Otto Porter cracked, using Pierce’s nickname.
It should never have come down to that shot, of course. The Wizards led 91-70 with nine minutes, 54 seconds remaining. Atlanta, going with a smaller lineup after pulling its best big man, Al Horford, off the court, went on a stunning 21-3 run over the next 6:42. The Hawks tied it with 14.1 seconds left when reserve forward Mike Muscala drilled a 3-point shot. The crowd howled. The players grimaced. But dwelling on the blown lead isn’t part of Pierce’s DNA.
“You don’t want to have bad energy in a timeout,” Pierce said. “I’m sure everybody on that sideline was disappointed, especially being up 21 to them tying the game with less than a minute. Wish it didn’t come down to it. Usually like to save those type of shots for later rounds.”
The Wizards had the presence of mind to wind the clock down to its final moments. Either Pierce was winning the game or he’d miss and the teams were headed to overtime. Atlanta would have no chance to grab a rebound and call timeout. In the end, he didn’t miss.
And now Washington has a home game on Monday to go ahead 3-1 in a series few gave it hope of winning once Wall injured his hand. Pierce, the summer insurance policy that keeps paying off in the postseason, took his latest bit of heroics in stride. He’s been here before, after all, and the clock is ticking on his own career.
“It’s been a great ride so far and a great year. I’m still soaking it up,” Pierce said. “Because I don’t have too many more of these left. And I want to enjoy it. I’m having fun, the games the practices. The [Capitals’ playoff] hockey games. I’m enjoying this.”