- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2015

The end may never have been more odd. The Washington Wizards high-fiving in their huddle. The Atlanta Hawks appearing as if a ghost just landed in the middle of a screaming Verizon Center crowd. Paul Pierce has been the boogeyman in the malice-filled dreams of so many opponents. He appeared to have ripped out another soul with a leaning, challenged, improbable 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game.

Instead, a video review and wave of the arms by the referees flushed the euphoria. The 37-year-old Pierce has been fighting time all season. Its victory this time was indisputable.

The Wizards‘ season ended with no players out on the floor. An inactive start could not be undone in Game 6 against Atlanta because Pierce’s shot left his hand too late. The Hawks advanced for the first time to the Eastern Conference finals after the 94-91 victory. The Wizards will walk into the summer heat convinced they should have defeated the Eastern Conference’s top seed, yet again are making vacation plans after losing a semifinal series 4-2, with the deciding blow delivered on their home court.

“For the second year in a row that we couldn’t get [our teammates] over the hump,” John Wall said. “[It] is going to be nightmares for a couple days.”

Time and geography indicate this is a repeat of last year. Comments afterward varied in their belief if this was progress considering the similarities.

“In my opinion, it’s the same,” Wall said. “We lost Game 6 at home.”

“I think so,” Garrett Temple said. “We weren’t this close last year. For each game to come down to the last few possessions, I think that’s big. I think we did make progress. At the end of the day, it’s still a second-round loss.”

“I don’t know,” Marcin Gortat said. “It’s too early to say something like that.”

Assessment of the series must begin with the boulder-sized caveat that Wall missed half of it. The Wizards‘ best player is on the cusp of becoming one of the league’s luminaries and his Game 1 fall ended up breaking bones in his hand plus hearts. That he returned at all in the series was “unbelievable” in Wittman’s eyes. That he played so well in the past two games deserves the same term.

Bradley Beal also had another strong postseason after a regular season potholed with injuries and shooting numbers similar to his prior two seasons.

But, there were problems. The Wizards‘ bench helped them trample the Toronto Raptors in round one. It went flat during the final three games against the Hawks — a result in step with the series against the Pacers last season, when Washington won the opener on the road before losing three consecutive at the back end of the series.

Otto Porter’s energy and rebounding were jolts. His shooting, however, abandoned him. Porter was 7-for-26 from the field in the three losses to close the series. He finished the series shooting 39.3 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from behind the 3-point line. What Porter could do when not a defensive focus came through in the Toronto series and at the start against the Hawks. Midway through, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer talked publicly of having to find Porter more often, the Hawks did, and his production waned.

Drew Gooden finished 3-for-15 in the final three games. Ramon Sessions closed the series 6-for-23. His impressive Game 2, when he scored 21 points in Wall’s stead, turned out to be the outlier. It’s fair to wonder how Jordan Clarkson would have helped a Wall-less Wizards had the team chose to retain the rookie they drafted in the second round instead of dealing him to the Los Angeles Lakers for cash. Clarkson was seventh in rookie of the year voting.

Atlanta’s frontcourt mobility and versatility were also among the deciding factors. If the Wizards used their small lineup that they discovered and embraced during the start of the postseason, the Hawks went into the post to attack Pierce through Paul Millsap. Al Horford made enough midrange jump shots to complicate pick-and-roll coverage for Gortat, who was sick for two days before Game 6 because of something he ate in after Game 5 in Atlanta. Gortat said he was throwing up throughout the day and even in the locker room before the game. He played just 12:19 in the deciding game of the season. “Quite honestly, [expletive] me over, man.”

Wizards coach Randy Wittman delivered a theme of persistence in the locker room afterward, suggesting all the banging by the Wizards will eventually cause a destruction of their obstacles. Temple latched on to Wittman’s theme. He thought back to the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons teams. When Chuck Daly took over in Detroit in 1984, the Pistons lost in the first round. They made the Eastern Conference semifinals the following season and lost. In 1986, they were out again in the first round. They lost in the Eastern Conference finals the next year, the league finals the year after that, then produced back-to-back championships.

“It’s just a matter of, like Witt said, keep knocking on that wall until it comes down,” Temple said. “I think it is progress. We were closer than we were last year in terms of the games were so close.”

The last four games of the series were decided by five points or fewer.

That doesn’t stem the bitterness. Wall referenced pending nightmares. Beal sat with his arms folded, glaring at postgame questioners. Pierce took a deep exhale and put his hand over his mouth in an attempt to keep his emotions in his gut after he finished with reporters. He walked to his corner locker with both hands on his hips. He was the last player in the locker room.

“This franchise is definitely heading in the right direction, as far as getting respect in the near future,” Pierce said. “A lot of years, people didn’t respect the Washington Wizards. But, I think now, what people saw this year and moving forward with the young nucleus here, that this is going to be a franchise to reckon with in the near future, if not next year.”

The dry-erase board in the locker room which supplies scribbled out information of what’s next had the schedule for Monday. No more practice or flight times. Only a gathering of belongings, meetings with Wittman and a group talk. All will come two days after another gulp of acid closed the season, leaving the Wizards again believing the year shouldn’t be over yet.

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