Beal had accomplished a franchise milestone — he became the only player in team history to score 25 or more points in 18 straight games — and he was searching for ways to explain the excellence. So Beal, who has played his entire eight-year career in Washington, relaxed into a smile and spoke of a higher power.
“I’m just having fun and being confident. Really my faith, honestly,” Beal said after scoring 34 points on 10-for-24 shooting with seven made three-pointers. “Just been getting my faith life together, and I feel like that’s honestly putting me at a place of peace to where I can play my game, have fun with it.”
And here is where a small miracle is happening in Washington. After weeks of feeling despondent after an all-star snub and growing frustrated with losses, Beal is now finding beauty in the ashes of the Wizards’ season.
“Just having fun, honestly,” Beal said Sunday. “I’m not thinking about anything. I want to go out there and win."
While the Wizards (22-37) have lived up to preseason presumptions of mediocrity, Beal has surpassed expectations. In doing so, he has passed some of the more accomplished names in franchise history. On Feb. 23, Beal leapfrogged Jeff Malone for second on the Wizards’ all-time scoring list. The next night, he moved past Gus Johnson and Phil Chenier to take over fourth in field goals made.
Those games — in which he scored 53 and 55 points, respectively, and became only the sixth player in NBA history to compile 50 or more on consecutive nights — represented the Wizards’ season. While Beal played spectacularly, the team did not.
In October, when Beal came to the biggest decision of his career and signed a two-year, $72 million maximum contract extension despite the forecast of a trying 2019-20 season, he chose to be the center of a rebuilding franchise. At that time, Beal mentioned how “honored” he was because “you don’t get that type of position, that type of power” with just any franchise.
With the power of being the foundation of an organization, however, came great burdens. The Wizards relished their victory lap when Beal re-signed, but then the games started and injuries and surgeries sidelined teammates. With the expanding injury list, it became clear that Washington could offer little in talent and depth to support its star.
Surrounded with inexperienced players or past-their-prime veterans, Beal faced nightly double teams and even gimmick defenses he hadn’t seen since he was the No. 1 high school recruit coming out of Missouri. During this 18-game stretch, allies have marveled at Beal’s consistency, and opponents have plotted an “anybody-but-Brad” defensive scheme.
“We throw a lot of stuff at him,” Brooklyn Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson said Wednesday after his team forced Beal to share the ball late in a Wizards win. “I think the fourth quarter, he took over, and that’s what great players do. He’s really become a great player in this league, you know? I know you guys all know it and see him all the time. You know, great, great player.”
Even on the historic Sunday night, after Beal went for 22 points in the first quarter, the Warriors aggressively sent an extra defender his way the moment he touched the ball. At times it worked — with about three minutes to play in the first half, Beal had to give the ball up to Thomas Bryant, who then launched a missile of a pass to the Wizards’ sideline for a turnover — and other times, Beal swiftly attacked and drew a foul before the defense could clamp down.
“They were double-teaming him right away, and it seemed like it was a box-and-one with a double team,” Coach Scott Brooks said of the Warriors. “He finds a way. He finds a way to get buckets. He finds a way to get his teammates open. The level of consistency that he plays with to me is what keeps him at that level — special.”
But this stability — which started near the end of January and peaked in February, when he averaged 36.2 points per game, the highest total for a calendar month in franchise history, according to Elias Sports Bureau — wasn’t enough to convince Eastern Conference coaches to select Beal as an all-star reserve. Even though there is evidence of lingering resentment — Beal responded with an emphatic “no” when asked whether he tuned in for the Feb. 16 showcase game — he has downplayed the snub as the impetus for his scoring surge.
Even so, no player in the NBA has scored like Beal since the all-star break. In the past six games, Beal’s 40.0 point-per-game average has led the NBA and outpaces the second-best scorer, Boston all-star Jayson Tatum, by six points.
“Unfortunately he didn’t get picked, but the players voted him second and that says a lot. Coaches, we think we know it all and we think we see it all, but the players know it,” Brooks said. “They know he’s impossible to guard."
Then, Brooks added a touch of sarcasm: “Can you imagine if he was an all-star what he would be doing right now?”
This kind of lightheartedness has not always reached Beal. After some losses, Beal would shake his head and blame himself for not doing enough. Or the frustration would mushroom to meme-able levels. An image of an irate Beal, stewing on the sideline in the waning moments of a Feb. 23 loss to the Chicago Bulls, went viral. This season, Beal has mastered the look of a disgruntled employee.
But later that night — unlike a few others when Beal would duck out of the locker room before reporters entered — he looked unburdened as he spoke about the loss. Beal even hung around, laughing with a friend inside the locker room.
In that small moment in Chicago, Beal seemed to understand — or even accept — his place in the Wizards’ season. He can’t single-handedly summon his team into relevance, but he can appreciate the bigger picture. Then, on Sunday night, Beal found some peace.
“We’re in a good position,” he said, sharing context about being an NBA player. “I get to play basketball for a living. It’s honestly bigger than basketball for me, and that’s honestly what I credit it to.”
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