PORTLAND — Bradley Beal hadn’t felt like this since he was a teenager — when his mother was still his harshest critic, and he was a sophomore on the cusp of leading Chaminade College Preparatory School to the Missouri basketball state championship. On that night inside a high school gymnasium, Beal launched a half-court shot at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime, for his 52nd point. That was the only time in his basketball life he had crossed 50 points — the coveted threshold that separates mere scorers from the most skilled players.
Eight years later, Beal stood inside the Moda Center visitors’ locker room, smiling at those memories as he experienced the feeling once again.
Tuesday night, Beal set his NBA career-high with a 51-point outburst against the Portland Trail Blazers. Beal made 21 of 37 shots, including 5 of 12 from the three-point arc, scoring the most points by an opponent in Portland history, topping even Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (49), Larry Bird (47) and Michael Jordan (46).
Beal considered the totality of scoring 50 points — as the targeted man against NBA defenders or even as a baby-faced baller — and found the perfect word to sum up the moment.
“That’s — buckets,” Beal said. “That’s an accomplishment. That’s an elite group of guys who can really score the ball, it’s something I take pride in.”
Before Tuesday night, Beal couldn’t get out of his own head. The play calls, his passes, those tinted protective glasses — they all weighed heavy on Beal’s mind over the last few games.
“Thinking too much,” he said. “I was trying to think about plays and get guys shots, to get them easy ones, and I was myself trying to make every play, and I can’t make every play.”
His inner struggle in trying to be the first unit’s John Wall stand-in showed whenever one of his passes turned into a mistake — Beal averaged 2.4 turnovers in the five previous games without Wall. It was especially apparent every time he tossed his eyewear during the game. Although Beal listened to doctor’s orders after taking an elbow to the face, he never adjusted to the uncomfortable glasses. In the two previous games, the bespectacled Beal shot 30.7 percent.
“He hadn’t been making shots,” Blazers star Damian Lillard said. “So at some point a guy that’s that skilled and shoots the ball that well, he’s going to get it going.”
A sleepless night followed the Wizards’ 47-point shellacking in Utah on Monday night. Beal stayed up watching game footage, mostly highlights that featured him making shots. He studied his mechanics and how he worked to get open, and when he took the court against in Portland, Beal felt free again. Especially after the first play of the game when he misjudged center Marcin Gortat’s positioning and his simple entry pass landed in an opponent’s hands. From that moment, Beal stopped thinking and played his own game.
“I just put everything on the table, regardless if I made shots, missed shots. Regardless of what happened throughout the game, I was going to be a better leader,” Beal said. “Leading by example, having good body language and doing whatever it took to get the win.”
For a scorer with his mind on buckets, leadership means attack, attack, attack. And so, Beal scored in isolation, moved around screens and bombarded the basket with pull-up jumpers. His singular focus to torment the Blazers led to several players taking the defensive assignment, and ultimately failing.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw someone take 37 shots,” Blazers Coach Terry Stotts said. “That’s a lot of shots. He had an outstanding night.”
Even though Beal took plenty of shots — he played the entire second half and launched 22 of the team’s 43 attempts — the volume should not overshadow his accuracy and efficiency. Beal, playing on the second night of a road back to back, never showed fatigue as he connected on 4 of 8 three-pointers in the final 24 minutes. Yet, Beal believed he missed some easy ones and suspected his mother, Besta, would point out that he should have had 60 instead of 51.
“That’s the kind of woman she is,” Beal said.
Back on that big night in high school, Beal recalls not scoring through the five-minute overtime. He remained stuck at 52 points. That feeling of reaching a milestone yet being nagged by the thought of falling just short of a truly special night has followed Beal throughout his five-plus years in the NBA. Beal had flirted with breakout performances before — his previous career-high was 42, set last season — but 50 points remained elusive. Until Tuesday night.
“I have been stuck on 40 a couple times, 38s and borderline 40s,” Beal said. “My teammates even pushed me. They were the ones to tell me go get 50. I was just worrying about playing the right way and if I had the shot, I was going to take it. If I didn’t, I was going to move it. They were the ones instilling in me ‘go get 50’ when I had 38, 42.
“I just continued to go and it’s a great feeling right now for sure.”