Can Paul Pierce handle the truth?

Paul PierceMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In warmups before a recent Washington Wizards exhibition game, Paul Pierce became one of the biggest instigators of an impromptu dunk contest.

Bradley Beal, John Wall, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter all zipped through, executing highlight-reel dunks. Pierce then grabbed the ball, streaked into the lane and delivered an emphatic ... finger roll.

"I'm saving my jumps for the game, when they count," Pierce shot back. "Those guys can jump around all day. I don't have jumps to spare. But hell yeah, I can still do it."

Yeah, right.

Then the game started and Pierce rejected two shots in the first quarter, including a chase-down block in transition that he swatted off the glass.

"Paul acted like he was 18 again," a beaming Beal said. "And that's the highest I've ever seen him jump before. That shows he's out there to be a key part of this team. For him to actually chase down a block in a preseason game shows a lot about his commitment and his character."

The age jokes can get harsh at 37 years old. Case in point: Pierce recently heard his new teammates cracking up when someone joked that Beal hadn't started kindergarten when the Boston Celtics selected Pierce with the No. 10 pick of the 1998 draft.

Only it wasn't a joke. Beal, now 21, was 4 years old at the time.

"It goes by so fast," Pierce said. "It's crazy now, being around a lot of these young guys. And they're like, 'I remember when I was little and watching you play back in the day.' And I'm like, 'Really? I guess you're right.' I'm 17 years in. A lot of these guys were probably still drinking milk from their baby bottles, still breastfeeding, man."

Pierce spent the first 15 of those 17 NBA seasons in Boston, winning a title and cementing future Hall of Fame status. But he has since become something of a basketball nomad, plying his famous step-back jumpers from the elbow for a new team each of the past two seasons.

He and Kevin Garnett were traded last offseason to the Brooklyn Nets for a bounty of draft picks and assets in a bold, win-now move. Pierce appeared in 75 games for Brooklyn in 2013-14, including 68 starts, and played a large part in righting the Nets' sinking season by embracing a stretch-4 role, but his individual numbers sank to career lows (13.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 28 minutes a game, a 16.81 player efficiency rating) and the team was bounced from the playoffs in the second round.

With Brooklyn luxury tax burdened for the foreseeable future, Pierce looked elsewhere in free agency. The Wizards signed him to a two-year, $10.8 million contract in July with hopes the veteran swingman could spark an offense that endured anemic stretches late in games last season, including multiple times in the fourth quarter during their second-round playoff series loss to the Indiana Pacers.

"We have a lot of talent, but there was one thing we didn't have last year: At the end of the game, we didn't really have a guy we could throw the ball to who had the experience to take over," Gortat said. "Now, we have a guy who can do something for us. We'll throw it to [Pierce]. He's going to do his shimmy-shimmy stuff and get us a bucket."

That presence was on display last week in Orlando, where the Wizards (3-1) nearly squandered a 17-point lead in the second half before they turned to Pierce late in the fourth quarter. Washington fed the ball to Pierce in isolation on three consecutive possessions in the final two minutes.

He set up at the midpost, backed down his defender and hit two jumpers to help secure a 105-98 win.

"He did what 'The Truth' does," Wall said. "Make tough shots."

Even when everyone in the building knows what's coming.

"Paul is going to do everything at his speed -- two miles per hour -- and get us a bucket," Gortat said.

When one of the Wizards' younger players suggested in the locker room after the game that it was an example of Pierce turning back the clock, the proud veteran protested.

"I don't agree," Pierce said. "I mean, turn back the clock for what? I never went nowhere. I've still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before that and the year before that."

The Wizards have been down this road before. Future Hall of Famers have passed through Washington late in their careers, but none have been able to translate it to postseason success. It didn't work when Bernard King arrived in his early 30s during the late 1980s, or when Mitch Richmond showed up in his mid-30s during the late 1990s. Not even a twice-retired Michael Jordan could make much of an impact on the standings in the early 2000s.

How can Pierce?

"The difference is, we already have our anchors in Wall and Beal," said Phil Chenier, a shooting guard on Washington's 1978 NBA championship team and a local television analyst for the past three decades. "When Bernard came, he was our new identity. When Mitch came, we were still expecting him to be a 20-point scorer every night. And even Michael, even though he retired and came back again and again, he was still MJ, and that expectation to be MJ was there."

"Paul still has a lot to offer. But he's not coming to save a team. He's coming to supplement a team that was very close a year ago to the conference finals."

That was the plan, at least. With Beal out for most of November after preseason surgery on a broken left wrist and Martell Webster still recovering from back surgery, there will be no shortage of opportunities for Pierce to get acclimated. Though he was ejected from the Wizards' home opener for arguing a call, the veteran forward is averaging 16.7 points on 11 shots in 30.3 minutes in the team's other three games this season.

Still, it's been an adjustment for Pierce, whose wife and three young children are still settling into a home in McLean, Virginia, a suburb just outside of Washington. It's an adjustment Bob McAdoo knows all too well. With a résumé that already included three scoring titles, a league MVP award, NBA rookie of the year honors and stints with five teams by the time he got to the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s, McAdoo initially was offended by the role he was handed by the budding "Showtime" dynasty.

"Politics play a role in everything, and I saw that," McAdoo said. "They brought me off the bench. I was going crazy inside. I never liked it. But I did it because the big picture was about winning a championship. When you get to that stage of a career ... I wasn't going to blow that just because I wanted to start."

Now a scouting executive with the Miami Heat after a long coaching career, McAdoo watched the Wizards during the preseason and envisions Pierce imparting the same leadership on Beal and Wall that he tried to extend 30 years ago to developing Lakers superstars such as Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott.

"They'll listen," McAdoo said. "But they'll watch your example more. These guys watched you before they came into the league. No complaints. Just fit in and be productive."

The Wizards already have taken notice of Pierce, whose methods and message hit the mark. A throwback work ethic allows this classic Atari of a hoopster to be compatible with generation Xbox.

"He leads by example as one of the first guys at practice every day," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "So those intangibles, his voice and stuff like that, right now, are used by us more than his actual physical skills on the floor."

And Pierce hasn't been shy about making his presence known, either.

A week before team media days, Pierce lobbed what seemed to be a shot at his former team when he suggested the Nets' reluctance to re-sign him at the expense of a deep luxury-tax hit was a sign they weren't as committed to winning.

Nets general manager Billy King disputed that notion, claiming that Pierce's initial asking price was too high and the team ultimately moved on and decided to focus on its returning players.

Then, an exchange of words between Pierce and Bulls center Joakim Noah in the Wizards' preseason opener escalated when Pierce pushed his index finger into Noah's face as they were separated by teammates and coaches.

Pierce and Noah were each fined $15,000 by the NBA, and four Wizards players, including  Nene, were suspended for the season opener for leaving the bench. It was a costly statement, but a statement nonetheless.

"Right now, it's about discovering our identity," said Pierce, who pointed to Washington's depth of big men in Nene, Gortat, Kris Humphries, Kevin Seraphin, Drew Gooden and DeJuan Blair. "We're going to be a physical team that's not getting pushed around and will try to intimidate pretty much everybody. That's what we want our identity to be: a defensive-minded, gritty, take-no-stuff team."

The Wizards had just completed a shootaround the morning before an exhibition game last month in Greenville, South Carolina. Many of the players quickly divided into two groups -- veterans versus youngsters -- for a game of trick shots, replete with all the requisite noisy trash talk.

Just off the court, the saws, hammers and power drills of maintenance crews buzzed in a rush to apply final touches to the renovated Bon Secours Wellness Arena for tipoff less than seven hours later.

Pierce surveyed the scene, soaked in the commotion and sighed. For a second, the Greenville arena might as well have been the old Boston Garden. Pierce was making a point.

"A lot of times, as NBA athletes, we live a glamorous life and we take it for granted," Pierce said. "I don't take none of this for granted.

"That's why I enjoy each day I come to practice. I always tell the guys here how much I love this. I love the fact that I can come out here every single day still, because you just never know when that day is going to come when it's over, when all of this comes to an end."

There's gravity to his words these days. It tugs Pierce back 14 years, to that September night in 2000 when he was stabbed 11 times during an alleged dispute at a Boston nightclub just days before the start of his third NBA training camp. Among the mostly superficial wounds to his face, neck and back was a seven-inch deep cut to his sternum that required surgery. It was just an inch or two away from a potentially fatal blow to an artery.

Speculation that Pierce was affiliated with street gangs in his native Los Angeles also gained momentum when, in 2008, he was fined $25,000 by the league for flashing what was believed to be a gang sign toward Atlanta Hawks players during a playoff game. Pierce and the Celtics both denied it was a gang symbol or that he was in any way connected to gang activity. Another alleged brush with violence occurred during the 2010 All-Star weekend in Dallas, when an NBA security detail broke up a bathroom altercation between Pierce and two men soon after he won the 3-point shooting competition.

When asked earlier this month about those incidents in his past, Pierce grew quiet. He glanced into the distance, toward a section of upper-level empty seats and pulled on the hairs on his chin. After several seconds, Pierce shook his head as if to say, "No."

"Having kids matures you," said Pierce, whose three children are ages 6, 3 and 1. "I'm really fortunate to be here based on that [stabbing], and some incidents that changed my life, my perspective on how I look at life. It all helped me realize that every day I'm out here to play this game, to enjoy family and friends, I'm blessed. Because every day, there are situations when there's a life taken, a life that just goes away."

Pierce insists he has no regrets about the way everything has played out. Former teammates and associates say he rarely discusses his difficulties along the way, other than using them as motivation.

"By the time I got to Boston, you could tell he was really trying to set a better example for the younger guys," said Hornets center Al Jefferson, who was drafted by Boston in 2004 and spent three seasons as Pierce's teammate. "He kind of let us know without saying as much that you've got to be smarter with your decisions, more professional. He led as much by example as he did by pulling us aside and talking to us."

There are the little things, too -- working out, dieting, sleep habits. Pierce is up at 6:30 a.m. and usually winds down for bed around 9:30 p.m. when there aren't games. Chips, sodas, fried foods and candy were gradually phased out and replaced by grilled chicken, fish and "a baked potato or some carbs, occasionally."

Those changes came about seven years ago, soon after Garnett and Ray Allen were traded to Boston. Each player was in his early 30s when the Celtics won the 2008 title in their first season together. At the time, Pierce said he never thought he needed to take notes from other veteran players. "Because you never think you'll be still around playing until you're 37," Pierce said, laughing. "You're never that guy. But just being around Ray and Kevin, those guys really helped me evolve. We all sort of changed up the way we ate, the way we got our rest, the way we worked.

"That's sort of the reason we've all had this longevity, because we saw and kind of fed off each other. So who knows if we'd still be in the league if we didn't come together in Boston?"

It's hard to comprehend how certain things add up. Especially the years.

Pierce is comfortable with where he's at now. He currently ranks 18th in NBA history in scoring (25,031 points) and is fourth among active players behind Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Garnett.

He embraces a life and career that blossomed after what could have been a fatality 14 years ago.

He even accepts that the patchy stubble on his cheeks will never form a full beard.

"I guess everybody's got jokes these days," he says.

Pierce has dominated his share of elite matchups over his career. He once bested Kobe for a title and is proud of how he still gets underneath  LeBron James' skin.

"That's made me," Pierce said. "I'm not going to show no fear. I'm going to try to find an edge. A lot of these guys like Kobe and LeBron, they're probably more gifted than me, more athletic.

"But that's why I've always tried to find an edge, sometimes by talking to them, doing things they don't like, taking them out of their comfort zone. I never had a problem doing that. It's the gift that I have."

But he knows he can't beat Father Time. He sees it all around him.

The other day, Wizards guard Glen Rice Jr. came over after shootaround to sit next to Pierce. In a sign of respect -- or maybe obligation -- the second-year prospect asked if he needed to grab Pierce anything for lunch when the players all returned to the team hotel.

It doesn't seem all that long ago when Pierce faced off against Glen Rice Sr., once scoring 66 points against Rice and the New York Knicks over a span of two games in 2000.

It was performances like those that helped earn him his nickname: "The Truth." Now Wizards players refer to Pierce by another: "The Living Legend."

"I've been picking his brain since day one when he got here," Beal said. "He's been through all of the battles and knows what it takes. And when you have a guy like that around, you have no choice but to listen and soak up all you can."