INDIANAPOLIS — You can’t be just 21 or under and take over a playoff game in this ear-splitting replica of an old Indiana “Hoosiers” fieldhouse. You can’t just drop pressurized shots on the home team and shut up a state of frothing basketball fans, some of whom drove past barns with backboards for hours, at such a ridiculously young age. Or have a perennial all-star veteran call you a superstar on the podium after the game.
Kobe Bryant already tried that, after all. Game 4, 2000 NBA Finals, the first genuine June moment of a Hall-of-Famer-to-be’s career.
Game 1, 2014 second round — Bradley Beal’s first playoff moment at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all those clock-winding-down killers from the perimeter to send the NBA’s road warriors onto another character-soaring victory.
Blessed to be at both games, I can say with conviction that Beal had Kobe’s supreme confidence Monday night. In yet another stirring performance that makes you forget he’s 20-freakin’ years old, Beal’s stroke may have even been purer than Mamba’s at 21.
“Bradley Beal’s a superstar in this league,” Paul George, the Pacers’ all-star guard, said afterward. “He’s on the rise.”
“Like, the way I think about it, I’m 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it?” said Beal, who, let’s be honest, is nearly too good to be real.
After his candor and 14 points in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 102-96 punch to the Pacers’ mouth, he added: “Why not accept that challenge? I’m just having fun on a great team.”
There were a lot of reasons the Wizards staved off Indiana and won their fourth straight road playoff game and got out of the gates for the sixth straight time this postseason blindingly quick.
Trevor Ariza, who couldn’t miss from three-point range. He made all six he took and combined with Beal for 47 points. Together, they were the Swish Brothers.
Martin Gortat and Nene, that ferocious all-foreign front line, defending down low, helping each other out, rotating, doing all the dirty work to enable the skill players to shine.
John Wall, who blew by so many Pacers in the first half he looked like something blurry with chrome rims at the nearby Brickyard.
But in the end, a child led them — just as Beal did in Chicago in Game 2 against the Bulls, firing in so many elbow-in long-range shots that just splashed through the netting. And even when he faltered, like when a free throw inexplicably didn’t touch the rim, he laughed it off as part of the game,
“I can’t believe I shot an air ball,” he said. “I guess everybody has their fair share. I just stayed confident. I just focused more. I think I was thinking way too much, because I had missed two in a row and I shot an air ball. Down the stretch, I wanted to focus in and with people chanting air ball, I just wanted to try to make them be quiet and get them out of my head a little bit.”
Make them be quiet? He made the voices of 18,000 pretty much halt in the fourth quarter.
Twenty-year-old NBA playoff neophytes are not supposed to lead silent retreats.
They are not supposed to take veterans off the dribble with the shot clock winding down and stick clutch jumpers. They are not supposed to air ball a free throw, smirk and come back with another big shot.
They usually have license to lose their poise, miss makeable shots, chalk up their misfortune to postseason experience and then come back the next year and blossom into something special.
Beal is not that kid. Monday night the words “kid” and “Beal” were officially retired from cohabiting the same sentence.
A kid does not become the first NBA player in more than a decade to finish with 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals in a playoff game. A kid doesn’t become the first person in league annals to have three playoff games with at least 25 points before their 21st birthday.
The crowd was curiously subdued early, as if it really did not want to invest in this Indiana team that had let it down so often the past few months. But that was the first half.
The last two quarters had moments of ear-piercing loud, just pure lunacy — 18,000-plus esophagi fully opened and engaged, their necks and veins protruding through wear-your-Pacer-pride canary yellow T-shirts handed out before Game 1, a literal human sea of Tweety Birds.
“GOLD SWAGGER,” their chests read between howls.
Then the barrage happened. First Ariza, then Beal. Together they made nine shut-the-front-door three-pointers, maybe two of which touched the rim. If you told them their red jerseys with the blue and white trim were on fire, they would have slowly looked at their torsos and calmly replied, “Why, yes, they are on fire.”
Gold swagger, red daggers.
He also gave it up for his teammates, because what’s a young player with so much talent and promise without humility, too?
“I have great vets,” Beal said. “I think I have a bunch of guys that have been there before. Trev’s won a championship before. He just tells me to stay in the moment, stay with it, if I’m not shooting the ball well.”
There are many games left to play in this series, any one of which can expose a flaw or showcase a moment of concentration loss expected of someone of Beal’s age and inexperience.
But we are two series into the playoffs now, and it has not happened yet. Even when his shot doesn’t fall, he doesn’t lose confidence or his cool. With Ariza as a mentor in this Tao of The Jump Shot course they are teaching, it is still unbelievably perplexing to see someone so young be so good.