John Wall snagged a rebound with his left hand, looked up the court and immediately sent a two-handed shovel pass beyond the outstretched hands of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to a streaking Bradley Beal. Beal caught the ball, took two steps and threw down a dunk. The ball never touched the floor. The textbook break was over in roughly four seconds and the two youngest players on the floor once again forced everyone else to play catch up.
The youth and inexperience of playoff newbies Wall and Beal was supposed to be a hindrance to the Washington Wizards as the franchise made its return to the postseason for the first time in six years. Not only did Wall and Beal prove to be ready for the stage in leading the Wizards to an impressive 4-1 series victory over the heavily favored Bulls, they also raised the expectations for how far the precocious duo can carry the organization this postseason and beyond.
“The curve has been crazy for them,” teammate Trevor Ariza said. “They’ve jumped so high in so little time that you never really tell how good, or how great, they can be. But as long as they keep that, ‘I want to get better’ attitude, I don’t think anybody is going to be able to stop them two together.”
Wall, the 23-year-old first-time all-star, and Beal, the 20-year-old marksman, refused to place any back court in the NBA ahead of them before they teamed up to dismantle the Bulls. Now, they await either the Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks lead the best-of-seven series 3-2, with Game 6 on Thursday night in Atlanta.
Beal led all scorers in the Bulls series, averaging 19.8 points while hitting 45.5 percent of his shots from three-point range. He became just the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 25 points in two playoff games before turning 21, joining Magic Johnson, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Harrison Barnes and Brandon Jennings. Noah, the Bulls’ all-star center, said of his fellow Florida alum, “He’s a beast, man.”
Wall averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 assists and reduced his turnover average from 3.6 in the regular season to just 2.4 against the league’s stingiest defense. After maturely serving as a playmaking decoy when his shot wasn’t falling through the first four games, Wall scored a game-high 24 points to lead the Wizards to a 75-69 victory on Tuesday.
“Beal and Wall are terrific and they are getting better and better. They complement each other well,” Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Coach Randy Wittman had little concern about how Wall and Beal would respond under the increased scrutiny, physical play and higher stakes of the playoffs. All Wittman needed was what he had already seen them overcome after both entered the league having spent just one season in college.
“They are growing up, there is no question about that,” Wittman said. “When they came into the league, I knew they were a little different than other 18- or 19-year-olds. Those two, I thought, grew through something like this and now they grow some more as we move forward.”
Wall was hailed as the foundation of the rebuilding efforts after getting drafted first overall in 2010 and had to handle the immense pressures of being the baby-face of the franchise while struggling to establish himself in the league.
Thrust into a leadership role, Wall also had to deal with injuries and dysfunctional rosters in his first three seasons until right mix of talent, personality and Wall’s inner drive to improve and stay healthy came together to make his fourth season special. That it came following a summer in which he signed a five-year, $80 million extension that was questioned by many, only served as more vindication.
“I’m still a humble, hungry kid from Raleigh, North Carolina,” Wall said. “The biggest thing is my teammates and these guys made it a lot easier and comfortable for me because I wanted that pressure but they didn’t want me to do it on my own. Earlier in the season, I wanted to prove myself so much that I would take too many shots and force the issue a lot and after our team meeting, these guys told me just be the leader. When I’m having a bad night, those guys still believe in me.”
Beal was drafted third overall in 2012 to be the complementary piece to complete the Wizards’ climb out of the lottery abyss. But even though most of the players who have fueled this current run were already on the roster when Beal showed up for his first day of training camp, the second-year shooting guard had to wait until January of his rookie season to share the floor with both Wall and Nene. Over the past two seasons, including the playoffs, the Wizards are 30-19 when Wall, Beal and Nene start together.
“I was thrown into the fire right away, especially with John and Nene being injured at the beginning of last year,” Beal said. “I had to come in and be the man and I wasn’t sure I was ready to do that. I knew I had to grow up fast, I was only 19. The game was moving fast for me, but eventually it slowed down for me, and I began to gain a lot of confidence. My game just came together and I have to continue to grow and grow and grow. Nothing in my game is perfect and whatever it takes for us to win, I’m going to do.”
The Wizards have surrounded Wall and Beal with capable veterans with playoff experience, but the team still looks upon its youngest rotation players to lead on the floor. After the duo helped Washington reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2005, the older players expressed their appreciation.
“I’m really happy for Bradley Beal and John because a lot of people said a lot of bad things about them, questioning how they would perform in the playoffs,” Nene said. “I take my hat off to them.”