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With clutch shots, Thomas Bryant helps cement his role with Wizards

Thomas Bryant defends as Mikal Bridges of the Suns shoots. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
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PHOENIX — While their fans are following draft lottery projections closer than playoff seedings, the final games on the schedule still hold significance for the Washington Wizards.

The games matter for Bradley Beal, who has an all-NBA bid on the line, and for Coach Scott Brooks, who — even though the Wizards are close to missing the playoffs — wants to see growth in his younger players.

This is why the final 30 seconds of the Wizards’ 124-121 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night should go a long way in cementing Beal as the team’s leader going forward and Thomas Bryant as a capable rotation player.

Though Beal had a chance to go back and forth with Suns shooting guard Devin Booker in a one-on-one duel, he instead twice passed to the open man, Bryant, for a pair of clutch baskets.

Booker, playing on a 17-win team, had one of his late-March scoring bursts and went for 50 points. But he missed a contested three over Beal with less than a minute to play in a tie game. On the Wizards’ next possession, Beal found Bryant open beyond the right arc. Later, Beal dribbled around the perimeter, drove the baseline and drew in defenders before lobbing a pass to Bryant at the rim.

“We’ll continue to have growth,” Brooks said about his vision for the end of the season. “We have some guys that these minutes are going to be necessary to show going forward. T.B. has had some great minutes throughout the year, and he still has a lot to learn, and he will continue to learn.”

Dwight Howard has missed 66 of the Wizards’ 75 games. Expect him to miss the rest.

In these final six games, the Wizards (31-45) won’t fix the litany of problems that have plagued them, but Beal’s insistence on making the right basketball plays and a young teammate rewarding that effort by making the shot represent growth.

“It was huge, but it just goes back to the [March 21] game where I threw him the ball and he shot the three,” Beal said, recalling the last time Bryant took a similar shot in a close game.

“When you constantly make those plays and when guys are in those positions, they know to be ready because I’m going to throw you the ball. Or there’s a possibility I’m going to get rid of the ball,” Beal said. “Two times tonight, they forced me to get rid of the ball, and, you know me, I’m an unselfish player, and if you’re open, I’m going to throw it to you.”

Last Thursday, when the Wizards trailed the Denver Nuggets by three, Beal made the right choice in the final 15 seconds and swung the ball to the wide-open shooter. That time, Bryant missed. It was the second time this season Bryant didn’t connect on a late three-pointer to tie or win the game.

Though that loss stayed with him, Bryant wasn’t thinking about it Wednesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena. After Booker’s pullup three over Beal missed, Beal went back to Bryant in a pressure situation with 28.6 seconds to play.

“My teammates believe in me. It’s a real big thing,” said Bryant, who finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds while outplaying the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft, Deandre Ayton.

“I give it all to my teammates. They believe in me to make that shot, time and time after I missed so many shots this month, this year,” Bryant said. “To have that confidence is great."

Beal had no hesitation in returning to Bryant for the game-winning basket — the drive and lob that resulted in a three-point play. This season, Bryant has made two game-winning shots, with the other coming in London on Jan. 17 against the New York Knicks.

“Came back and hit a huge and-one for us,” Beal said, recapping Bryant’s sequence Wednesday night.

Booker, 22, made history by becoming the youngest player to have back-to-back games of 50 points or more. Both, however, came in Suns losses. The 21-year-old Bryant does not have to carry a young and fledgling roster like Booker. Still, he took the big shots late in the game and picked up valuable lessons.

“Right there in the huddle, my teammates and coaches were telling me be ready to: ‘Shoot the ball. We know you can,’ ” Bryant said. “It felt great. No lie. It was a whole confidence boost for me.”

Read more on the Wizards:

Bobby Portis says he’s always been seen as a villain. Even before he broke a teammate’s face.

Jeff Green goes viral with good humor, but little else to smile about in Wizards’ fifth straight loss

The end is near for the Wizards, who balance faint hope with hard reality

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