WASHINGTON - Paul Pierce sat sprawled out on his chair in the corner of the Wizards locker room, his uniform still on and perhaps still as devastated and overwhelmed by the night’s events as anyone in the building
In a career filled with big games and big shots, it appeared Pierce had just hit one of the toughest and clutchest shots of his career; a one foot, off-balance, contested prayer at the buzzer that tied the game at 94 and forced overtime. Once again, Paul Pierce had defied the odds and rescued his team with an improbable shot that sent the Verizon Center crowd went into a frenzy...until the replay review.
In a brief (by NBA replay standards) time, the referees emerged and waved their arms to call off the shot, ending the game and the Wizards' season.
"It was a little late," Randy Wittman would say after the game. "I thought it was good when he made it," Wittman said, echoing the feelings of the 18,000 in attendance. Wittman began preparing for how the Wizards would attack the Hawks in overtime. "Then when you hear the crowd moan, that's not a good sign."
For most of the game it didn't look like the Wizards would be able to generate any late drama. They found themselves down by as much as 15 points in the third quarter, looking like they might go the same way as Chicago did in getting blown out in their closeout game at home against Cleveland. But the Wizards clawed their way back into the lead late in the fourth, before faulty offensive execution and missed defensive assignments gave Atlanta the opportunity to regain the lead for good.
It was a roller coaster series to end a roller coaster season. From the highs of a 29-13 start to the struggles of pretty much the rest of the season, the Wizards ran the gamut of emotions in 2014-2015. The playoffs were no different, as the Wizards experienced euphoria after emphatically sweeping the Toronto Raptors and winning the first game on the road against Atlanta, and the disappointment of a John Wall broken wrist that had them at a disadvantage for the rest of the series.
Wittman reflected on the progress his team made after the game. He said "I am really proud of our guys. The heart they showed this year, taking this step again and ending up basically where we were last year. We had three 1 possession games in this series. We won one and they won two of them."
While Wittman tried to take the long view of how far this team had come and what it accomplished, Bradley Beal and John Wall couldn’t help but talk about the opportunity they had missed. For the second straight season, the Wizards had a chance to upset the number one seed, only to see the dream die on their home floor.
A visibly dejected Bradley Beal said after the game "It’s probably every synonym for sad you can think of, especially when we had such high goals." For someone whose play had done so much to keep the Wizards in series, it was hard to accept defeat after the game. "We have to tip our hats off to Atlanta, they're a great team, but it's definitely heartbreaking because this is two years in a row. You always want to continue to get better, and not worse than you were last year."
John Wall when asked about playing this Hawks team, voiced his respect for the team but clearly thought this was a series that the Wizards could have won: "We felt the same as we felt last year, we let games slip away. If you look at Game 5, they won it by one second. You look at tonight, we came back and took the lead."
With the season over, questions remain for the future of the team. The biggest on is the future of Paul Pierce. Pierce, who a short time ago seemed to be hinting he would be around for another season or two, sounded like someone very unsure of whether he would return next season. "I don't even know if I am going to play basketball anymore," Pierce said, emphasizing the cumulative toll of seventeen years of basketball on someone who is not one of the oldest players in the league.
"There is a lot that I have to talk to my family about and just figure out from there but I have loved my time here in Washington and there is a lot to think about right now."
There is a lot for the Wizards brass to think about as well. When asked if the playoffs had shown what they needed to do to be better offensively next year, Randy Wittman didn’t hesitate to answer affirmatively: "We know what we have to do and the pieces we have to add. Brad and John are going to be here a long time. We have to realize the strengths and capabilities that they bring and put the players around them that allows us to play the way we played in the series with Toronto and Atlanta."
Whether they can add talent and develop what they already have to take that next step remains to be seen, but Wittman sounded optimistic: "We just have to keep knocking on that door. We are going to knock it down."