- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fatigue piled on Paul Pierce throughout the year. His slow walks from the training room back to his locker showed the invisible weight dragging behind him during his 17th season. He did all he could to deliver a little more magic, a few more shots, another cutting word for opponents. Rest was necessary. A hyperbaric chamber was used. A day after beating the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 with a banked-in buzzer-beater, it was suggested to Pierce his postgame proclamation, “I called game!” should be made into a business venture. He said he just wanted to get some sleep before taking his wife out for Mother’s Day.

Understandably, Pierce had a hard time after Game 6 grappling with the thought this could be the end. That his waved off 3-pointer, a tick too late, squashed the emotion of a rally and started summer for the Washington Wizards with such suddenness. For his teammates, the down time will be about improvement and, for many, possible new landing spots. Pierce will consult with his wife, mother and children about whether to return.

He can rejoin the Wizards by utilizing the one-year contract option he holds, be dragged by nostalgia to one more team near home or his heart, or make that night in Verizon Center the end of a Hall-of-Fame career.

“I don’t have too much more of these efforts left, if any,” Pierce said.

The Wizards used a caretaker’s touch to get Pierce through the regular season. He took games off because of a big toe problem. More than once, it appeared he suffered what would be a lengthy injury. Instead, it was a temporary jolt from a nagging nerve in the middle of his back which bothered him for years or a flash of knee discomfort. Among the Wizards‘ starting five, only Marcin Gortat and John Wall played more games than Pierce.

His regular-season totals were down. Minutes, points, rebounds and assists were career lows. His shooting, however, was steady. The 44.7 percent from the field matches his career percentage. The 38.9 percent he shot from behind the 3-point line exceeded his career average and was his best since the 2010 season. That number vaulted to a stunning 52.4 percent in the playoffs, when Pierce was mostly used at power forward in a lineup approach that was mothballed for most of the regular season.

After a chaotic single season in Brooklyn last year, Pierce’s role as sage and chief antagonist was embraced in Washington. He began trash-talking his teammates during pickup games before practices began. His former coach with the Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers, assured that Pierce would bring swagger to a group with a young core still trying to find its way. He did that with big shots and big talk. From the start, he talked of far-reaching goals.

“That was my mindset coming in,” Pierce said. “I’m just thankful that I was able to have an influence on this group and give something to them. Whether I am here next year or not, I’ve left something with a lot of these young guys that they can carry throughout their career and an understanding what it’s like to be a pro, what it is going to take to move your career to the next level and that is hopefully something that I’ve given them that they can understand and move forward with.”

Each new opponent brought a fresh batch of reporters with the same question for Wizards coach Randy Wittman. How has Pierce influenced the team? At one point, Wittman said he is asked that almost daily, which, in itself, was proof of the 17-year veteran’s imprint. Unlike others — like Michael Jordan, who had arrived in Washington to play in the fading light of an exquisite career — Pierce delivered. The final four games against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals were decided by five points or less. All four times, the Wizards turned to Pierce at the end. Three of the shots went in: the Game 3 winner, a go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 5 and the improbable corner 3 in Game 6.

“He gave us all he could in these two series,” Wittman said. “We rode him.”

Pierce joined Washington because of mutual discord with Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Clippers could not fit his contract under the salary cap and John Wall and Bradley Beal offered potency in a feeble Eastern Conference. This offseason, Pierce’s options vary. The rise in the salary cap should provide the Clippers, and Rivers, an opportunity to bring Pierce back to his Inglewood home, though it would likely be with an offer below the value of his current player option. His beloved Celtics have legacy and flexibility on their side if they pitch Pierce. The Wizards have Beal, Wall and a profound sense they should have been in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. No matter where he goes, the money he is offered is likely to be similar, in the $5.5 million to $6 million range. There is also a backdoor option in Washington, where Pierce can opt out of his option year and be re-signed for 120 percent of his previous salary.

“I’d love him back,” Wittman said after Game 6. “I think he wants to be back. I don’t know, I’m putting words in his mouth. I’d be surprised if he didn’t. I think what he saw with these guys and the heart this team has, why wouldn’t you want to play the end of your career with a group like that?”

Wittman was making his first pitch in front of cameras. While he talked, Pierce sat at his corner locker in a heap. His white Wizards jersey was untucked. The end, if this was it, had begun.

“Probably going to be the hardest thing I ever have to do is put the game down,” Pierce said. “But, I know that time is coming one day.”

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