- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2015

His head heavy with the weight, aches and responsibility of 17 seasons, Paul Pierce leaned it back and sighed. His press conference was over and Pierce wanted something to eat. He groaned when rising from his plastic chair. Plugging a burst pipe can be tiring work, especially when you are a double-teamed 37-year-old.

Pierce’s buzzer-beating bank shot took Game 3 out of the scrap yard and turned it into a 103-101 win on Saturday night that gave the Washington Wizards a 2-1 series lead. The top-seeded Atlanta Hawks once led 2-0, and that was their last moment in front against the John Wall-less Wizards, who led by 21 points in the fourth quarter during a nightlong and collective we’ll-show-you statement in the absence of the injured all-star.

Nene was forceful and accurate, scoring his first field goal of the series less than three minutes into the game. He finished with a 2015 postseason-high 17 points.

Otto Porter is yet to legally switch his name to Playoff Otto, his new social media moniker, but that did not stop another potent night off the bench. Porter’s Game 3 line of 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists has graduated to commonplace.

“I think he could have played better,” Drew Gooden said. “When you start having those types of games and guys think you can play better, you’re on to something.”

Will Bynum made two free throws with 22.1 seconds to play to put the Wizards back up three points. Three months ago, Bynum was injured and playing in China. He was nonplussed by the perceived pressure of the moment, noting that being unemployed with kids is pressure. Those were just free throws.

Five Wizards players scored in double figures, compiling the kind of distribution necessary to counter Wall’s absence for the second consecutive game because of five fractures in his left wrist and hand. The Wizards did not update his status beyond his lack of participation in Game 3.

Atlanta went “radical,” to steal Wizards coach Randy Wittman’s term, when trying to stop its three-quarter-long paddling. Coach of the year Mike Budenholzer clamped his starters to the bench. Backup point guard Dennis Schroder ran things. Another backup point guard, Shelvin Mack, joined him. Mike Muscala was at center. Mike Scott was the power forward. Kyle Korver was the only recognizable face among Atlanta’s closing group, though the dab of bleached hair on Schroder’s head makes him memorable.

A 21-point, fourth-quarter Washington lead went away against Atlanta’s alternative lineup. It was dragged down to 13. Then eight. Five. Three. One. Misery was minutes away.

“Stay composed, let’s be solid,” Pierce said he advised his teammates. “The Hawks did a good job. They took us out of a lot of our offense with their trapping, with their speed. We missed a lot of shots. They forced us to play until the shot clock wound down to where we got to throwing up late shots.

“That’s not us. We’ve got to be able to execute for four quarter. … For it to end up like that, it’s a little disappointing because we know we’re better than that.”

Undone by their lack of pace and own odd fourth-quarter lineup — Washington started the quarter with Bynum, Garrett Temple, Porter, Gooden and Marcin Gortat — the Wizards dabbled with a staggering defeat.

Schroder was a nightlong scourge off the dribble, providing Bynum and Sessions difficulty with keeping the youngster in front of them. Twice earlier in the game, Gortat fouled Schroder after he drove past his defender. When Schroder accelerated toward the basket on the Hawks‘ final possession, Gortat ran into the paint. Schroder slipped, fell on the floor and was without an option if, with a three-point lead, Gortat stayed on the perimeter with Muscala.

Instead, Gortat was a heartbreak’s distance away when the big man dropped a 3-pointer to tie the game. The lone fourth-quarter sighting of the Hawks‘ starters followed. They sprinted onto the floor to congratulate the unlikely backups in what has become a series wrapped in unlikely occurrences.

“You do your teaching and all that afterward,” Wittman said. “Up three, you can’t leave the three-point line to go run [and] try to block a layup.”

The Wizards made a note of what the small, oddball Hawks lineup was doing to defend. They were switching often, a counter that began in Game 2. In Friday’s practice, the Wizards put in a new play for Pierce that would get him the ball at the elbow — where he has scored so many times while dancing on the grave of the mid-range offensive game — against a smaller player. With nine seconds to play, Wittman yelled, “Go!” to Bynum, who left the elbow, popped his shoulder into Korver and cracked Pierce loose. Schroder, six inches shorter than Pierce, a factor amplified by Pierce’s preference to step back and shoot, switched onto him.

Pierce stumbled to the floor just as the ball hit the backboard. He shot over Schroder and just beyond Kent Bazemore, who came running over only to swing and miss at Pierce’s shot. By the time the ball banked through, Pierce was flat on his back with his arms outstretched in joy. His teammates were wise enough not to pile on top of a body that may soon need carbon dating to determine its origin.

Luck is involved with a banked-in game-winner. Proverbs explain luck is also related to preparation. Waiting for practice to start at a downtown college gym in Toronto during round one, Pierce asked Gortat, “Hammer, you want to get some?” The two play brief and occasional games of one-on-one, which typically do not go well for Gortat. During these, Pierce will shoot step-backs over the 6-foot-11 center. It’s amusement that additionally allows Pierce to hone what is already sharp.

“Those types of shots go in due to hard work,” Pierce said. “That’s not something I just pull out my back pocket. This is stuff I work on. I work on jabbing at the elbow. Step-back jumpers, shooting over the top. I mean, I’ve done it for a long time. Just because I’m in my 17th year, doesn’t mean I’m not going to continue to work.

“You get put in those positions, which are rare, especially with me in this stage of my career with the young stars we have on this team. Usually, end of the game we would have put the ball in [Bradley] Beal’s hands or Wall’s hands, but it came to me today and I was ready.”

Pierce is getting old, which he admits. So far, he’s not too old for this. He’s just tired and hungry.

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