BOSTON — Paul Pierce is a certified basketball geek.
He admits he has watched multiple Celtics games this season, which should qualify him for some sort of medal, given the Celtics’ struggles and the fact he is busy three to four nights a week playing for the Washington Wizards. Clearly, the guy loves basketball.
So it’s no surprise he was glued to last season’s Washington Wizards-Indiana Pacers Eastern Conference semifinals matchup. While his own Brooklyn Nets fell quickly to the Heat, Pierce watched the upstart Wizards almost knock off Indiana, the No. 1 seed and a championship hopeful.
“They were intriguing,” Pierce said. “I thought that team could have beat Indiana; I thought they should have beat Indiana. I was watching all the pieces they had and I said, this team could be dangerous.”
All the Wizards needed was a veteran presence, something they had addressed somewhat with a midseason trade for backup point guard Andre Miller. But Pierce, a free agent, didn’t begin thinking about signing with Washington until he sat down with former teammate and then-Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell last summer.
Pierce ended up signing a two-year, $10.8 million contract with Washington, and the fit has been perfect.
“It’s been fun,” Pierce said of playing with the Wizards, who have the second-best record in the East at 13-6 despite Sunday’s loss at TD Garden. “We’ve got a hungry young team. They’re real receptive to my leadership in the locker room. They want success. John Wall is one of the up-and-coming great players in this league, trying to take the next step from star to superstar along with Bradley Beal.
“They’ve been positive, receptive to everything I’ve been giving them each and every day. Learning how to be pros, learning how to go from good players to great players.”
Wall and Beal are the stars, and big men Marcin Gortat and Nene are the muscle. Pierce isn’t just a piece of scenery, though. He has started all 19 games and is averaging 12.7 points per game.
Yet Pierce has embraced a role some future Hall of Famers might not accept so readily. He still craves the big moment — he missed a shot that would have given Washington the lead and completed a comeback from 25 points down Sunday — but his primary job is to help groom Wall, Beal and the Wizards into true contenders.
In fact, having Pierce around has lessened coach Randy Wittman’s workload.
“Any time you’re around quality, not only a quality player but a quality person, that goes a long way,” Wittman said. “I don’t know if people always understand that. It absolutely makes things easier for a coach when you don’t have to worry about those side factors that crop up when you don’t have that.”
“There’s a reason he is who he is, because he does those things and he’s willing to accept a role as his career has moved on,” Wittman added. “That’s why he’s still playing. That’s why he’s still a factor on whatever team he’s on.”
Leaving Boston ate at Pierce, especially when the situation in Brooklyn turned out not to be as rosy as it appeared from the outside. That might have been why last season’s return was so emotional for him. He looked around at the aging, middling Nets roster and thought, I left Boston for this?
On Sunday, he was better able to focus on the game at hand. The third trip back is always easier than the first, obviously, but the environment in Washington feels more positive. More settled. It’s a team on the rise, rather than a simple collection of high-priced talent.
His heart will always be in Boston. But for now, he’s got a job to do for the Wizards.
“I tried to focus, a lot,” Pierce said. “Last year was really tough for me to kind of lock in on what I needed to do. This year I just wanted to come in, lock in on the job at hand and focus as much as possible. It’s hard at times when I hear the chants and I hear people yelling (my name), but when I come in here now, when I come into the Garden, it’s to try to get a win against the Boston Celtics.”
Thumbnail photo via Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports Images