One of the voids Paul Pierce left when he departed Washington to return home to Los Angeles in the offseason was his late-game shot-making. Pierce was the one who called game. He reveled in those occasions.
So when he bolted to join the Clippers, a question emerged for the Washington Wizards: Who would take the big shots in those situations?
Wednesday provided the first such scenario, and Bradley Beal, the young sharpshooting guard on the cusp of stardom, owned the moment. Beal buried a three-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining to lift the Wizards over the San Antonio Spurs, 102-99, at Verizon Center.
The shot completed another Beal scoring barrage to begin the season. He finished with a game-high 25 points on 11-for-22 shooting and has led the Wizards (3-1) in scoring in each of their four contests.
“Out of all my shots tonight, that one felt the best, honestly,” Beal said. “Everything was in rhythm. It just felt good.”
After Tony Parker’s three-pointer knotted the game at 99 with 7.3 seconds remaining, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman huddled his team and designed a play to put the ball in John Wall’s hands. He trusted the point guard would make the correct read, and Wall already knew what to anticipate. The Spurs had been switching on screens the entire night, and he expected them to again.
When Wall gathered the inbounds pass atop the key, he patiently dribbled until Beal faked a pick on Danny Green, who was defending Wall, and slipped across to the wing. As Wall expected, big man LaMarcus Aldridge switched off Marcin Gortat and was trailing Beal.
Wall immediately recognized the situation and found Beal, who delivered a wicked jab step on Aldridge as he lumbered over to contest the shot. Beal dribbled once to his left and launched the three-pointer to give the Wizards their second straight win over San Antonio. Before this modest streak, the Spurs had won 17 straight against the Wizards.
“John told me before we even ran the play, ‘Be ready because you might be open as soon as you slip out of the screen,’ ” Beal said.
Wall, the other half of the Eastern Conference’s highest-scoring back court, finished with 17 points, all in the second half, and 13 assists as the Wizards tallied 27 assists to a season-low 10 turnovers.
“I thought he was brilliant,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said of Wall, who also had four steals.
The Spurs (4-2) were led by Kawhi Leonard’s 23 points and nine rebounds. Aldridge, their marquee free agent acquisition, registered 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting and 14 rebounds. San Antonio outrebounded the Wizards 49-33 but committed an uncharacteristic 21 turnovers.
For the game’s first five minutes, the Wizards performed exactly how Wittman had demanded after surrendering 113 and 117 points in each of their previous two games. They scrambled around on defense as if a 72-hour respite was the remedy to their woes. They contested anything and everything, at times lunging at Spurs shot-takers too eagerly. Once San Antonio missed, rebounds were secured and outlet passes were delivered to launch the offense instantly.
The result was a 19-2 lead with 7 minutes 2 seconds remaining in the quarter. The only damper on the festivities was Gortat picking up two early fouls. It was as flawless a start as the Wizards could have imagined against a team of the Spurs’ ilk.
It was erased as quickly as it was created. San Antonio, in true Spursian fashion, didn’t call a timeout to regroup. Popovich let his group of veterans plus young star figure it out. With 6:51 left in the quarter, the Spurs finally broke the seal with their first field goal, a Leonard reverse layup, and the dam ruptured. San Antonio closed the quarter on a 21-3 spurt, igniting the hearty contingent — a good portion of the announced 17,721 in attendance — hooting and hollering in black and silver.
San Antonio extended its merciless response deep into the second quarter, building a 12-point lead with 2:43 remaining — a 49-17 shelling by then — before the Wizards finally got up off the mat and countered with an 8-0 run to conclude the seesaw half.
“It was weird,” Beal said of the back-and-forth affair.
The second half was steadier as the Wizards hung tight until finally breaking through when Wall drilled a three-pointer to tie the game at 90 and Beal completed a fast break with a thunderous one-handed dunk to give the Wizards a two-point lead with 3:23 on the clock.
But San Antonio would not relent until the very end, when Beal and Wall suppressed any late-game uncertainty surrounding the Wizards. And it was exactly how they envisioned it: Wall, their point guard impresario, making the heady pass to Beal, their talented young scorer.
“It’s just me coming into my own, I guess,” Beal said. “It’s just me being confident in myself. Coach trusting me. My teammates trusting me and being able to step into the role where I take big shots and make them.”