WASHINGTON – Bradley Beal’s night was almost complete, but before he slipped out of Verizon Center, there was one more request he had to fill. Miles Brown, child star from the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” and noted NBA fan, asked Beal to autograph his jersey and film a short video on his cellphone. Beal smiled into the phone but was stumped when Brown asked him to name five Michael Jackson songs in 10 seconds. Beal shouted out a few but could only scratch his head as he let the time pass without completing the task. It was perhaps the only time all night that Beal wasn’t able to perform under pressure.
The Washington Wizards are up 3-2 in their best-of-seven, first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks – and have a chance to close out a series on the road for the first time in three years – because Beal was able to come through, with his timely shooting and underrated defense, at the moments his team needed him the most. Whether the Wizards needed a run-stifling jumper or a shutdown block on Hawks four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, it was Beal providing a reminder that – while only 23 – he has never been intimidated by this stage.
John Wall, the more accomplished member of the Wizards’ esteemed backcourt, was always confident that Beal was capable of the kind of performance he delivered in Washington’s 103-99 victory on Wednesday, when he scored a team-high 27 points. But Wall had to be patient, and he asked others who doubted Beal after he received a $127 million contract last summer to “let him earn it.” Beal lived up to his end in the regular season, compiling a borderline All-Star campaign while playing a career-high 77 games. And in these playoffs, no player 24 or younger – not even Giannis Antetokounmpo – has put together a higher scoring average.
“It’s the same thing I went through,” Wall told The Vertical of Beal’s steady climb. “A lot of people get success later on, and a lot of us get it late. Both of us are getting it late in our career, but that doesn’t define what you did early in our career, because we still showed glimpses. We just never were healthy and never had a great team. He put in the work and is deserving of everything he’s got. All you can do is keep going up. And all we can do is keep getting better and better as a tandem.”
Wall and Beal have had their ups and downs over the years, but they forged a partnership this season, with the organization unable to find a star in free agency and placing the burden to lead upon them. They have been pushing each other to get better and spend time guarding each other in practice. That’s why they had no problem switching assignments in Game 5 after Wall picked up three early fouls trying to keep up with Hawks jitterbug Dennis Schroder. Schroder still managed to finish with a game-high 29 points, including five 3-pointers, but Beal helped minimize his influence by consistently pressuring the ball. Beal finished with three steals but added a more impressive three blocked shots.
“That’s something people don’t give him credit for, but he does a heck of a job [on defense],” Wall told The Vertical.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks called Beal “one of the best two-way players in the game,” believing that his defense is often overlooked because of the contributions he makes on the offensive end. “[He] has one of the prettiest shots in the game,” Wall told the Vertical. But Beal takes pride on the defensive end, revealing an almost irrational approach the last time the Wizards were in the postseason, stating that he was upset whenever DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Korver touched the ball. He has mostly chased around Tim Hardaway Jr. this time around but his attitude has remained the same.
“I want guys to be out of their rhythm. I don’t even want you to know what the ball feels like,” Beal said. “That’s my mentality on defense. Coach always tells me every day I need to be better on offense and even better on defense. I just accept that challenge, take it to heart and leave it all on the floor.” [/restrict]