LONDON — Through three quarters of the Washington Wizards' game against the New York Knicks in London on Thursday, Bradley Beal looked as if he wanted to be in another country.
The Wizards were trailing by double digits, and Beal wasn’t helping. During one particularly bad stretch, Beal, cold from a poor shooting start, missed the second of two free throws. As Beal transitioned to the defensive end of the court, he needed a moment to express his disappointment and screamed at himself. The Knicks scored on this same possession with Emmanuel Mudiay racing past Beal and rising for the dunk. Then, as Beal grabbed the ball to inbound it, official Michael Smith blew his whistle and signaled him for prematurely allowing the ball to enter the court before making the pass.
Beal looked at the referee in dismay and initially refused to hand over the ball while he claimed innocence.
By the time the Wizards staggered to the end of the third quarter, the team trailed 89-77 and Beal was 7 of 22 from the floor (0 for 5 from the three-point arc) with six of the team’s 10 turnovers.
“I played like crap in the first half,” Beal said after the Wizards' 101-100 win. “I can be the first one to tell you that, and I’m not scared to say that.”
By the fourth quarter, however, Beal finally started to enjoy himself. This season, Beal seems to enjoy the closure of games in any arena. He ranks within the top 10 among all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring (6.9 points), ahead of an impressive collection of all-stars in Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard.
On Thursday inside the O2 Arena, Beal scored nine points in nine minutes. Beal even assisted on Thomas Bryant’s game-winning shot in which the Knicks committed a goaltending violation with 0.4 seconds remaining.
“The thing with Brad, it’s big-time growth,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “I’ve been saying it: Only a handful of guys in the league can have a bad three quarters and be the driving force to the win in the fourth quarter, and he’s had some growth in this area. I couldn’t say that this would have been the case a couple years ago.”
In the past, Beal has been open about having to improve his body language and not project negativity to teammates when he is just being hard on himself. Turning a scowl into a smile helps after hitting shots — as Beal did during the Wizards' comeback Thursday, when his second three-pointer of the final quarter pulled the team to within 91-90 with 6:11 remaining in the game. The Knicks called a timeout after this shot, and when play resumed Beal forced a turnover.
“He’s an all-star for a reason, and we need him to play like that every night, even when the shot’s not falling,” Brooks said. “He has to do the little things to help.”
Beal’s turnaround caught the attention of the international media on hand for the single NBA regular season game played in Europe this season. A reporter asked Beal if the earlier self-flagellation and displays of frustrations had fueled him.
“I feel like it’s channeled. It’s not frustration out of anger. … We all have to play better and myself included,” Beal said.
“That’s the player I am. That’s who we are as a team. We’re not going to play perfect. We were down 10, 20 points in the first half, and we stuck together and got a win,” Beal continued. “It’s not always going to go your way. You’re not always going to get calls, you’re not always going to make shots, you’re not always going to defend the right way, you’re not always going to be in the right coverages. But it’s: ‘Okay, how do you retaliate off of that? How do you bounce back off of that?’ And we did it. That’s a great sign of teams who are really good and who want to prove something, which is exactly where we are.”