WASHINGTON – The ball fell through the hoop and Verizon Center exploded. Paul Pierce had done it again.
The Wizards, trailing by four points in the final 30 seconds, had just tied Game 6 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night with another moment of buzzer-beating brilliance from their 37-year-old future Hall-of-Famer.
Then the whistles blew and the referees convened. Television replays focused on whether Pierce’s foot was out of bounds when he released the game-tying shot from the left corner with Atlanta guard Kyle Korver in his face.
But a replay on the big HD scoreboard made the real truth quickly apparent to The Truth and all the screaming bodies in the arena. Washington’s moment of joy had been snatched away.
The giddy Hawks waited at their bench for the final verdict: The shot had come .1 of a second too late. They erupted with glee, advancing to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. The Wizards were eliminated by a cruel 94-91 loss. There would be no Game 7.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Pierce said.
Afterward, as one teammate after another spoke to reporters in the middle of the Washington locker room, Pierce slumped in his corner stall and checked his tablet. He made a hushed phone call and then rose off his stool and gingerly walked to the shower.
When it was his turn to address the media, Pierce admitted he might have played his final NBA game. He has a player option to return to the Wizards in 2015-16. But the physical and emotional toll of a full NBA regular season and a playoff run might be too much for him now. An indomitable spirit might finally have been brought low.
“Truthfully, what was going through my mind is I don’t have too much more of these efforts left, if any,” Pierce said, his eyes red and watery.
Bradley Beal and John Wall, the team’s young stars, were no less emotional. But they have time on their side yet. There are future seasons to prepare for and, they believe, more playoff runs in store. That didn’t ease the sting of three consecutive losses – the final two games decided in the final seconds – that turned a 2-1 series advantage into a 4-2 series defeat.
“There will be nightmares for a couple of days,” Wall said.
Wall didn’t shoot the ball well. He made 7 of 21 shots and had six turnovers. But he earned praise from teammates and coaches for even playing, the five fractures in his left hand and wrist a painful hindrance that kept him out of Games 2, 3 and 4. Washington’s All-Star point guard wasn’t at full strength and that made the series all the more painful. The No. 1 seed was vulnerable.
Still, Wall scored 20 points and had 13 assists on Friday. That followed a 15-point, seven-assist, four-steal effort in a last-second Game 5 loss in Atlanta on Wednesday. A player most thought was done for the series almost willed his team to advance.
“I can’t ask for anything more,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s actually unbelievable.”
Wall didn’t leave the floor in the second half with the Hawks building a lead as big as 15 points. Washington finally went ahead on a Beal jumper with 3:50 to go, but failed to extend the lead and soon fell behind again.
Down four points with 30 seconds left, a Beal steal and two free throws gave the Wizards a chance. Atlanta forward Al Horford missed a late free throw to give Pierce his last-ditch effort that, for a few brief, wonderful moments, looked good.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Hawks point guard Jeff Teague said.
“I was about to cry,” added Atlanta guard DeMarre Carroll. “I said ‘Not again.’ It went through. Fortunately, the basketball gods were on our side.”
Not so for Pierce. He hit the game-winning jumper at the buzzer to win Game 3 at Verizon Center. He drained the go-ahead 3-pointer with eight seconds left to put Washington up 81-80 in Game 5 only to have Horford steal the victory with an offensive rebound and putback with one second left in an 82-81 loss.
“It takes a bite out of you,” Pierce said.
The Wizards were that close to advancing to the conference finals for the first time since 1979. Pierce was that close to adding another incredible last-second shot to a 17-year career filled with them.
Instead, his team’s season was over. And Pierce was left to wonder about an uncertain future. The seasons get harder and harder now at 37. Getting out of bed is a chore for weeks after it ends and then the grind of preparing for another year begins again. The emotional toll the sport takes on a players’ family weighs on Pierce, too. But it’s also all he’s ever known.
“I love the game. I’ve been playing this game like 32 years – since I was a little kid,” Pierce said. “It’s probably going to be the hardest thing I ever have to do is put the game down. But I know that time is coming one day.”
Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.