- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2015

Wrapping his arms around Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond last week was instinct for Paul Pierce. Drummond is 21 years old, 7 feet tall and weighs 279 pounds. Pierce yanked on him, desperate to keep this monster from getting a shot off. He was able to do that. And, it caused the 37-year-old Pierce to take a knee a few seconds later.

“It was just a little quick back spasm,” Pierce said. “You get to 37, you get hit throughout these games, every little thing starts hurting.”

The pains and problems have added up for the struggling Wizards. They have lost seven of their last eight games. After skidding back to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, they are closer to the sixth-place team than the fourth-place club. February was an unruly mess for Washington.

Among the layers of disengagement for the Wizards is trouble handling stretch fours — power forwards on other teams who can shoot 3-pointers. Pierce could help fix that problem.

Pierce’s surprise arrival last summer was often framed around using him as a stretch four, a position he had played the season prior in Brooklyn. Pierce feels he is capable of guarding any position, so taking on bigger opponents, should he need to, would not be a problem. Conversely, Pierce would use his offensive package to give his man problems at the other end.

In concept, Pierce as a stretch four sounded good. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and some combination of Otto Porter, Rasual Butler or Martell Webster at small forward, Pierce at the power forward spot would up the Wizards’ speed, shooting and spacing. Trouble is, the Wizards have rarely used this setup.

According to basketballreference.com, Pierce has been the power forward for 34 minutes, 12 seconds this season. Pierce has played 1,514 minutes.

Finding a way to counter opponents’ stretch fours will be crucial if the Wizards expect to be competitive with the upper tier in the East, something they have not been thus far. Last Tuesday, they faced a depleted Chicago Bulls team that had to play rookie Nikola Mirotic more than it typically would. In the first three games of the regular season against Washington, the Bulls played Mirotic a total of 45 minutes. But, without backup power forward Taj Gibson on Tuesday, Mirotic played 32 minutes and scored 23 points.

The matchup advantage Washington held when Chicago played force against force was dissolved. With Mirotic, the Bulls were able to spread and dissect the Wizards same way the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers can.

“Teams that can really spread the floor against our bigs pose more of a problem,” coach Randy Wittman said recently.

Which puts an onus on Pierce.

On Feb. 22 against the Pistons, Pierce took five shots. All were 3-pointers. He was not satisfied with that offensive approach. The next game, against the Golden State Warriors, Pierce was 7-for-11 from the field.

Banging his knee late in that game caused him to miss the next two. When he returned and again faced the Pistons, Pierce was 5-for-12 from the field. He followed that with a 6-for-10 game against the Bulls. The 55 points tied his highest-scoring three-game total for the season, perhaps signalling a turn in potency for what has already been a solid season for Pierce.

“I just wanted to be aggressive, period,” Pierce said after the second game against Detroit. “Take the shots that are there. Not pass up. Mix it up between my 3-pointers and my drives. That’s what I tried to do on the most part. That’s why I was able to get into the paint, find some of the big guys for some assists. That’s who I am.

“It’s the point of the season, we really look at the stat sheet where we don’t really get to the line a lot, so I wanted to try to mix it up, not settle all night for the three and when the driving opportunities presented itself, do that. Then when the bigs step up, find guys. I try to create a balance with my game.”

After he bruised his knee in the collision against Golden State, Pierce joked, “You can’t break steel.” Sitting out the next two games proved it can at least be dented, and that the Wizards don’t need that theory to be tested any further.

Though he is at the end of his 17th regular season, Pierce’s minutes are beginning to creep upward. Wittman said prior to the season he would manage Pierce’s time on the floor by feel. Pierce has played and started 56 of the Wizards’ 61 games. He’s on the floor for a career-low 27 minutes on average, but has played 28, 34 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the last three games he’s been available.

“I’m used to the rigorous schedule and the pains you go through throughout the course of a season,” Pierce said Thursday. “I feel about the same [as] I feel in any normal season. Everybody has their little injuries at this point of the year. Just normal stuff.”

Without power forward Kris Humphries (groin) again Friday night, and the non-post-up Miami Heat in town, the Wizards will have a chance to further manage their lineup against troubling stretch fours. Pierce could provide a needed late-season answer.

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