WASHINGTON — The path toward becoming a contender is usually littered with disappointing moments that can either come to define teams or provide inspiration. And over the past four years, the Washington Wizards have had times when they proved to be inexperienced or ill-prepared, when they’ve been victims of untimely injuries or their own hubris, and when they’ve come so close that the pain has pushed them to demand and expect more of themselves.
A Game 7 loss to Boston in the conference semifinals last May haunted the Wizards and especially Bradley Beal, who kept firing and connecting — to the tune of 38 breathtaking points — only to realize that his best wasn’t good enough to help a franchise on the fringe of finally breaking through.
“It definitely hurt. It hurt all summer,” Beal told The Vertical, “knowing that we could’ve been in the Eastern Conference finals and gave ourselves a chance to be able to compete in the Finals for the first time in a long time. It was a learning experience. We had never been in a Game 7 before. We know how to deal with it and approach it now. But I could care less about my points. I’d trade in a win for zero points any day. Hopefully, if I’m in that situation again, it’ll be a different result.”
The Wizards’ response to that heartache was to explain, simply and plainly, why the result was unacceptable. They felt they were the better team. They felt they would’ve given the Cleveland Cavaliers a serious challenge in the conference finals. Beal went so far as to claim Cleveland tanked in the final week of the regular season to avoid meeting the Wizards in the second round. Though the three-time defending conference champion Cavaliers either ignored or laughed off the comment as ridiculous, Beal has refused to backtrack. He said what he felt to be true.
“I feel like when we speak our minds, it’s just us being confident in ourselves,” Beal told The Vertical. “I’m not going to sit here and say it’s arrogance. There is a difference between arrogance and humility. We definitely have to be humble with our approach to the game and who we’re playing, handling success the right way … and handling adversity the right way. But I believe in my team and my teammates more than anybody else in the league. I’m confident every time on the floor we’re going to win the game.”
One of the best qualities of Washington’s professional basketball team is that its best players are frank to a fault. They are willing to say, without fear, what players on other teams might think. And they have no problem dealing with the sore rear ends that come when they can’t back up their big talk. But they are discovering through the early parts of this season that you can’t simply proclaim yourself the best and expect the rest of the league to comply. Nothing is given, even to those who feel entitled.
Embarrassing losses to the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix and Dallas — the latter two at home, no less — and a 57-point reminder from LeBron James and his “Long Live The King” sneakers to sit down and be humble has led the Wizards to reconsider their approach without relenting their confidence.
“I think we’re kind of, I guess, stubborn and figure we’re a little bit better than what we are,” Beal told The Vertical. “We know what kind of team that we can be and that we want to be, but we’ve still got to go out and prove it. We still have to go out there and showcase what we’re capable of doing. And sometimes, I think we think it’s going to be a cakewalk and we’ll just walk out there and win games. We take for granted that everybody is a professional. Everybody is in the league for a reason. We kind of get too comfortable in our own skin and it comes back to bite us in the end.”
An inability to maintain focus has contributed to the Wizards losing games they should’ve won. They fell down carnival barker LaVar Ball’s trap door when he said his son, Lonzo, wouldn’t lose to the Wizards — first with Marcin Gortat responding that Wall would destroy the rookie, then with Wall saying he would show “no mercy” before the team blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. They were up big against Golden State but couldn’t finish because Beal got ejected after whacking Draymond Green in the face, tangling with him and later tackling him in a jersey-ripping tussle. Beal received a $50,000 fine and a much more valuable lesson.
“I can’t put myself in that position. No matter what’s being said or what’s being done. I’ve got to stay locked into the game. Don’t let things like that affect you, get you out of your game or out of your mindset,” Beal told The Vertical. “That’s on me, for sure, getting a little bit out of character and putting my team at risk.”
Before that Game 7 loss, the number 38 carried little to no significance to Beal, but that was his points-per-game average during his best individual three-game stretch of this season, when he had a season-high 40 against the Suns, 36 against Cleveland and 38 in Toronto. Only the Raptors game was a win, and the Wizards needed Beal’s heroics with Wall sidelined because of a sprained left shoulder.
Beal is determined to finally make his first All-Star team, but says he’s “not going to go out of the team concept.” With so much talent migrating from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference last summer, Beal has a chance but not if the Wizards can’t find a way to separate themselves from a congested field. Beal came close to making the team as an injury replacement last season but commissioner Adam Silver chose Carmelo Anthony instead, a decision Silver said was made because Anthony had the most votes from the coaches.
After that snub, Beal raised his scoring average from 22.2 points to 24.8 points in the final 26 games to join Kevin Durant and Vince Carter as the only players in NBA history to average at least 23 points and 40 percent shooting from 3-point range before their 24th birthday. This season, Beal is averaging a career-high 25.1 points. The increased scoring is not the result of vengeance but rather availability. Beal missed at least 19 games with a recurring leg injury in three of his first four seasons but has played in 87 of a possible 92 regular-season games dating back to last season. Coach Scott Brooks has empowered him to take more ownership of the offense by serving as a playmaker and encouraged him to take more 3-pointers.
“It’s just me evolving as a player. And on top of that, I was healthy. I’m going to credit that more than anything, is the fact that when I had a healthy year, the sky was the limit for me,” Beal told The Vertical. “I was able to be more aggressive. I’m in a system now where I can do so. Coach grants me freedom to handle the ball a little bit more and play off the dribble instead of being a straight catch-and-shoot guy. So, it allows me to get other guys involved, get myself going and I take advantage of it. I love to score, no doubt about it, but wins are far more important for me. At the same time, I know if I’m not putting the ball in the basket, we’re not going to have a chance to win.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Beal’s play is that he has practically silenced the criticism thrown his way after signing a five-year, $127 million contract in the summer of 2016. “I laugh at it sometimes. But I always believed in myself,” Beal told The Vertical. “I still have to prove myself and I’m still doing it to this day and I’m going to continue to do it, because I have a long way to go. And I’m happy with the work that I’ve done and the work I’ve put in and I’m going to continue to get better.”
The Wizards take their cues from Wall, responding to the All-Star point guard’s energy and emotion — whether good or bad. But as Beal has grown into a more trustworthy running mate, they have forged a partnership with Beal providing the more calming influence. They have the Wizards on the cusp, with a more wide-open East than usual and a continuity that their rivals envy. What they lack is a recent history of success on which to fall back, with the organization’s best days pre-dating the arrival of Magic and Larry. They might not know what it takes to reach the pinnacle, but they know where it starts.
“Effort. That’s all it’s going to take. We have to do a better job of coming out of each and every game, respecting our opponents, playing with the same energy, same focus that we do when we play great teams,” Beal told The Vertical. “I feel like we still control our own destiny and the best part about it, it’s all fixable things. It’s not like it’s something hurting us scheme-wise or play-wise. It’s a matter of us competing harder and having that same mentality every game. Act like we’re playing Cleveland every game. Act like we’re playing Golden State every game. And treat every opponent with respect, knowing that we’re a targeted team and teams are going to give us their A-game. We’ve got to be ready to go. We can’t be on our heels, because we’re a vulnerable team. We can’t just go out there and think we can beat anybody.
“We’ve got to get over the hump. And the hump right now is being consistent,” Beal told The Vertical, “and playing great basketball on the defensive end. We can be an elite team. We can be the team we want to be, but we’re kind of done talking about it. We’ve got to go out there and do it, because night in and night out, it sounds like we’re saying the same thing over and over again. It’s not going to change unless we put it into action.”