- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 18, 2015

TORONTO — Few other than Paul Pierce can crawl under the skin of 19,801 people with a two-letter word. Shown on the video board before tip-off on Saturday, Pierce was booed by the sellout crowd of 19,800. A short time before that, Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri stood on a stage outside of the arena, microphone and bad judgment in hand. The thousands of Raptors fans frothing in the late-morning sun and packed before him wanted to hear his thoughts about the newest villain in Canada.

“People want me to say something about Paul Pierce, but we don’t give a s– about ‘it!’” Ujiri bellowed.

Midweek, Pierce had suggested Toronto does not have “it.” He later expounded on what “it” was, explaining the Raptors did not have an individual player who can control a playoff series. He was taking a step back from the comment. Ujiri took the bait and drove a gasoline truck into a bonfire.

By the end Game 1, Pierce was chuckling. His sunglasses were on for the few hundred feet from the locker room to the press conference area. He took them off and slowly went up the three steps preceding the stage. He had scored 20 points in the Wizards’ 93-86 Game 1 overtime win where scoring often appeared outlawed. He spent much of the night as the power forward, an alignment the Brooklyn Nets used him in last season during the playoffs when they beat the Raptors. It was also a look the Wizards eschewed almost all season. For Pierce and the Wizards, it was personal and team gratification.

If news of the tumult from Pierce’s comments followed by his Saturday success reached the West Coast, Doc Rivers would be laughing along with Pierce. His former coach in Boston tried to bring Pierce to the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason, but could not fit the contract under the salary cap. Before the season, he lauded the Wizards’ acquisition of the 37-year-old whom he won an NBA title with. Longevity, drive, cooperation; Rivers outlined them as attributes. There was also one other thing.

“The best part people will love about him, he’ll give that team a little bit of swagger,” Rivers said. “Paul can talk with the best of them on the floor. And, so that will help them. He’s not a dumb talker. Some of these guys … Trash talk is an art. Most of the guys don’t pass the test. But, Paul is an expert at it.”

Boos are fuel for Pierce. Repetition dulls any corner, so, at 37, Pierce will take the boost. It may not make him move faster — nothing has during his 17 seasons in the league — or jump higher. But, he’ll take the smooth effectiveness of scoring 20 points on 10 shots with thousands in white T-shirts screaming at him.

“I don’t mind playing the role of underdog or villain or whatever you guys want to call it,” Pierce said. “I’m out here just trying to help my team win. Trying to give us a mental edge. Just a veteran presence. I have a lot of experience in this game. Been around a long time. Been in every situation you can probably think of … I just try to give us an edge somehow.”

For so long this season, Pierce was not used at power forward. Preseason, the idea was discussed. During the season, the concept was stowed. Pierce played just 3.6 percent of his minutes in the regular season at the four. The Wizards stuck to their ball-push and dual-post player plan. Pierce was barely placed in the role so many expected for him, either because of preservation or surprise. It was a pocketed wrinkle, as it turns out.

Saturday, the Wizards used John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Pierce and Marcin Gortat or Nene on the floor. Pierce at the 3-point line opened space. It countered many of the problems Toronto presented Washington in the regular season when the Raptors were 3-0 against the Wizards. Wizards coach Randy Wittman talked with Pierce before the series about the role and, simply, what it takes to win a title.

“If I don’t take advantage of having a guy that’s going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and pick his brain, then I’m not doing a very good job,” Wittman said.

The Wizards dialed down Pierce’s minutes the last month of the regular season. His sore knee could use the break, Pierce said, and his whole frame could use the refresh. For a game, rest and roars put Pierce back into the playoff light. On the floor, he shot better than any other player. Off, Ujiri tried to counter Pierce’s jab, but all he did was walk into a sucker punch. Ujiri also proved he learns by doing something twice. Last season, he proclaimed, “[Expletive] Brooklyn” before the playoff series began. The Raptors lost in seven games.

“Typical Ujiri,” Pierce said. “You heard what he said last year when I was in Brooklyn. I could really care less. I think I can play the psychological war better than him.”

For an afternoon, he helped the Wizards play basketball better than Ujiri’s club. Though the Wizards showed some of their season-long ailments. A 15-point lead was blown. The ball stopped moving on offense in the fourth quarter. Mistakes were made on defense. Those became discussions for the coming off days instead of immediate alarms after surviving in overtime gave Washington, and Pierce, separate 1-0 leads.

“It was a good Game 1 win on the road,” Pierce said. “Kind of set the tone for the series. We’re not going to back down. We know they’re tough at home. But, it takes the pressure off us and puts it on them now.

“So, you know, we’re just going to take it one game at a time and try to get Game 2. We’re going to try to be greedy. We didn’t come up here to try to get one game.”

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