Playoff introductions aren’t supposed to be the top-down-on-the-convertible cruise that the first six games of this postseason were for Bradley Beal and John Wall. But in the past two games against the Indiana Pacers, the Washington Wizards’ back-court duo has finally been forced to go over some potholes.
With their team trailing two games to one in the best-of-seven, second-round series, Beal and Wall — trailing in the postseason for the first time in their careers — must come up with a response in Sunday’s Game 4 at Verizon Center.
What they do could go a long way toward helping the Wizards even the series against the suddenly confident Pacers. Otherwise, it will serve only as preparation for handling adverse situations in future postseasons; a 3-1 series deficit heading back to Indiana would all but put an end to this feel-good run for Washington.
“We’ve never been here before, especially me, and it’s our first experience, so we can look back and say, ‘Okay, we know what it takes to do this and that,’ ” Beal said. “But at the same time, we’re confident in our game and confident that we can move forward. We know that we can win games. We’ve shown we can beat the best teams in the league, and we’re in a tough series right now. We’ve just got to bear down and do whatever it takes to win and continue to play with confidence.”
The Pacers have frustrated Beal and Wall since they combined for 38 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in leading the Wizards to a 102-96 win in Game 1. Wall assumed blame for the Wizards’ 86-82 loss in Game 2, in which he missed 11 of 13 shots, including two rushed three-pointers late in the game. And Beal took responsibility for an 85-63 loss in Game 3 — in which the Wizards finished with the lowest point total in franchise history and he missed 13 of 19 shots.
The show of accountability is the latest example of Wall and Beal’s growing maturity. But if the Wizards want to upset the Pacers, they will need more answers than apologies — and that comes with cracking the code of Indiana’s unrelenting defense.
Pacers all-star swingman Paul George called Beal “a superstar in this league” after the second-year shooting guard joined Magic Johnson as the only players in NBA history to have three 25-point playoff games before their 21st birthday. Beal earned the Pacers’ respect and undivided attention, with George taking on the challenge of guarding the Wizards’ leading scorer this postseason.
In his past two games, Beal is averaging 16.5 points on 38.2 percent shooting while connecting on just 3 of 11 three-pointers. In a sequence that encapsulated his struggles in Game 3, Beal was bumped by George, lost his dribble, stumbled before regaining his balance, clumsily chased down the ball and then batted it into the back court for a violation.
“He’s a good defender and he’s long, but again we’re getting Brad his spots,” Coach Randy Wittman said of George guarding Beal. “If we can continue to do that, I’ll be pleased with that. But obviously it’s a different look with his size that he possesses, and he’s a good athlete, but we’ve got to continue to work him.”
The Wizards have responded to the defensive adjustment by trying to tire George using countless screens. Beal admitted that constantly being on the move, with George hounding him, has caused him to work a little harder to get clean looks.
“He definitely makes life more difficult, but at the same time I’ve got to figure out a way to score points,” Beal said.
Wall had managed to compensate for a lack of huge scoring games this postseason by serving as a solid game manager. But in Friday’s loss, the Pacers had Wall so out of sorts that he threw a lob pass to Marcin Gortat about five feet too high and out of bounds and another pass to Drew Gooden before he crossed half court for another turnover.
Early in the third quarter, Wall scooted up the floor toward three waiting Pacers defenders, leaving most of his teammates behind. Pacers guard George Hill simply snatched the ball away from Wall, who finished with a playoff-high seven turnovers.
“I think our guys are just running back and praying,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said, “because it’s obviously a very tough assignment to stop him in the open court. He’s so electric; you’ve just got to do your best.”
Wall’s night was complicated in the third quarter when he was scratched in his right eye and said he “could barely see.” He should be ready for Game 4, but he is still in search of a signature playoff game after shooting just 34.2 percent and averaging 16 points in his first eight playoff games.
“I’m taking shots I made all season,” Wall said. “That’s why I became an all-star. That’s why I averaged more points. So I’m not going to stop shooting because of what people might say or what the media might say. That’s my confidence and what I believe in and what I worked on. This series, they haven’t been falling, just like Chicago series. But at the same time, you do what you do and what you worked on.”
When asked to reflect on how the lessons of this postseason will help him moving forward in his career, Wall said, “I can’t even process it or even think about it.”
Wall and Beal are focused on what’s in front of them, and Wittman said the recent struggles haven’t affected their confidence: “They haven’t shown me up to this point that they’re lacking.”