DALLAS — Bradley Beal got lost in the moment, lost in a good groove, and let out a rare, celebratory show of emotion in the fourth quarter of the best scoring performance of his NBA career.
After watching his fifth three-pointer drop on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Beal formed his thumbs and index fingers into circles and placed them over his eyes as he ran back on defense, grinning the entire way.
Beal usually maintains the same facial expression whether he’s making shots or not and might crack a smile if cajoled by teammates on the bench. But his playful enthusiasm on the night that he set a new career-high with 34 points in a 106-105 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder also signified that his early-season slump is behind him.
“The hoop was just like an ocean and I was just dropping rocks in it. That’s how big it felt. That’s how easy it felt, too,” Beal said, while adding that his three-ball goggles were unscripted. “I was running out of celebrations. I didn’t know what to do after I made the three, so I just started doing some stuff.”
Beal’s night would’ve been more enjoyable if the Wizards (2-4) had managed to close out a game that they never trailed for the final 25 minutes of regulation, one of the toughest venues in the NBA. But Beal was undaunted about playing in an arena where Washington had not won in six previous trips, or with engaging in a duel with three-time scoring champion and District native Kevin Durant.
“I was having fun,” Beal said. “Whenever you’re playing against Kevin Durant and the Thunder, or a playoff team, you just have that chip on your shoulder, like, let’s beat them. But you have to be able to do that against everybody, and not just them or the top-notch teams. I just felt comfortable and my teammates did a great job finding me.”
When he had a rough start to his NBA career, Beal got back on track once he remembered that he was a kid playing a kid’s game and chose to have fun again.
In his second season, the 20-year-old Beal once again started slowly and claimed that he was “a victim” of bad body language when he had a second straight poor shooting night and the Wizards lost their home opener to Philadelphia.
Beal finally started seeing some shots fall in Miami, where he made four three-pointers, and he handed out a career-high eight assists in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I knew I wasn’t going to allow myself to play the way I was playing,” Beal said after Monday’s practice at American Airlines Center, where the Wizards prepared to take on the Dallas Mavericks. “I have to play good. And that’s one thing I always tell John [Wall]. We’ve had that conversation a lot of times. In order for us to move forward, we both have to be on top of our games. Even if things aren’t going well, I still have to find a way to impact the game.”
With his parents, Bobby and Besta, traveling from St. Louis to watch him play at Verizon Center last Friday, Beal matched his previous career high with 29 points in the Wizards’ 112-108 overtime victory against the Brooklyn Nets. Though he shot 11 for 20 and had his first game shooting better than 50 percent all season, Beal joked that he wouldn’t be able to get too excited over his performance with his mother around to push him.
“She said, ‘Good game.’ But she always says I can better,” Beal said with a laugh. “That’s definitely where my humble attitude and willingness to get better always comes from her critiquing me the way she does. The fact that she continues to push me, my whole family does, to make sure I’m always achieving and getting better.”
Beal was the primary reason that the Wizards were on the verge of stunning the Thunder, with his accuracy from long distance and determination to stay on the attack. Beal played the first 18 minutes of the second half, scoring 16 points during a stretch in which the Wizards extended a five-point halftime lead to 12.
“Shooter. That’s what I call him,” Al Harrington said. “He was aggressive. That’s one thing I tell him. We need him to score that basketball and we need him to score at a high clip. Just be very aggressive shooting the ball and we’ll take your misses and your makes. We’re going to love you either way. And the more he gets comfortable in that role, the more dangerous he’s going to be.”
Coach Randy Wittman gave Beal a breather with the Wizards up 85-76 and with 5:55 remaining, but the game slipped out of control in the nearly four minutes that he sat. In that time on the bench, Beal watched Nene get ejected for pushing an already stumbling Russell Westbrook to the floor and his team was beginning to unravel.
But when Serge Ibaka dunked to bring the Thunder within 91-90, Beal hit a 23-foot jumper with 50.1 seconds remaining to put the Wizards ahead by three. And when Ibaka again had a putback layup, Beal drove right to basket for a layup that gave the Wizards a 96-93 lead.
“It was a big game. Knocking down big shots and taking big shots when we needed them,” John Wall said of Beal. “He didn’t stop fighting. He was kind of the catalyst for our team.”
Durant sent the game to overtime with a cold-blooded three-pointer. Beal had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his one-handed runner on the right side of the foul line came up short.
In overtime, Beal again put the Wizards in position to win when he caught a pass from Wall in the right corner and buried a three-pointer to match his career high for three-pointers in a game and put his team ahead 103-102. But he wouldn’t score again, and Durant came out ahead when he blocked a shot by Trevor Ariza, got fouled and made the decisive free throws.
“It is real tough,” Beal said. “These games, we’ve got to pull out. We’re up 10 with two minutes to go. We got to bear down and get stops, and take care of the ball on the other and get good shots, knock down shots when it’s crunch time. That game was definitely in our hands, in our control and we let it slip away.”