“I was very good tonight,” Bradley Beal deadpanned, as he half-jokingly tried to hurry out the door of the Washington Wizards’ locker room in the wake of their 135-128 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night.
In a way, the understatement was fitting for the newly reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. On Saturday night, Beal demolished the Grizzlies to the tune of 40 points and a career-high nine made 3-pointers, one of the most dominant games of his seven-year career. Beal’s massive performance on Saturday completed one of the most mind-boggling two-day stretches of basketball in recent memory: 84 minutes, 80 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds and 16 3-pointers.
While the Wizards as a whole have fallen short of their preseason expectations, their struggles certainly can’t be attributed to Beal, who has blossomed into legitimate star and the unquestioned leader of the Washington locker room.
“He really wants to win,” said forward Bobby Portis. “Each and every night, you know what you’re gonna get out of him … he’s a great teammate, on and off the court, he really motivates you. He just wants to win.”
A season full of misfortune and turmoil has left the Washington Wizards toiling in something resembling anonymity, an afterthought in the Eastern Conference. Their biggest offseason acquisition, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, was lost for the season to gluteal injury after appearing in just nine games. A few months thereafter, franchise player John Wall found himself sidelined for the season after undergoing surgery on a nagging heel injury — and, weeks later, ruptured his Achilles in a fall, casting next season into doubt as well.
And yet, while the rest of the basketball world has moved on from Washington basketball, the Wizards have refused to roll over. At the core of it all is Beal. Even in a season teetering on the edge of collapse, he has approached every game with a near-fanatical intensity.
“I didn’t sleep well. I was mad all night,” Beal said of Friday night’s defeat at the hands of the Hornets. “I’ve been up all day just thinking about the game from last night. I just knew how it important it was to get one tonight, no matter what it took.”
In keeping the Wizards afloat, Beal has assumed one of the most daunting workloads in the entire league. He leads the NBA in total minutes played by a substantial margin, nearly 200 ahead of second-place Tobias Harris. After playing more than 70 games just once in his first four seasons, Beal has also fully shed his injury-prone early-career reputation, passing the threshold for the third consecutive season on Saturday night.
“He played a lot of minutes last night [against Charlotte],” said coach Scott Brooks. “The way he was [physically] today, watching our pre-game film, you would have thought that he would not play at all. But he knows how important it is to lead us and step up, and that’s what he’s been doing all year.”
Despite the massive burden he carries every night, Beal is enjoying the best season of his career. He’s improved in almost every conceivable way, posting career-highs in scoring average (26.2), usage rate (28.3), 2-point percentage (54.8), assist rate (24.2), total rebound percentage (7.6) and free throw rate (.269). Among guards, he ranks 12th in the NBA in PIPM (+2.5), ahead of notable stars like Kemba Walker, CJ McCollum and Jimmy Butler.
“In my very biased opinion, [Beal] is All-NBA,” said Brooks. “He’s doing things that level of player does night in and night out. It’s not every other night, it’s not two out of three nights, it’s every night.”
With just a 5-5 record in their last 10 games, the Wizards remain on the outskirts of the Eastern Conference playoffs with 11 games left to play. At 30-41 on the season, they sit in the 11th seed, with a five-game gap in the loss column between themselves and eighth-place Miami. The walls are starting to close in, and this coming weekend, a Saturday night tilt against those Heat could make or break their chances.
True to form, of course, Beal isn’t concerned with accolades or individual performance. He has his eyes set on a bigger prize.
“We’re positive. I know I am. At the end of the day, I want to make the playoffs. I’m sure everybody else in here does, too,” said Beal. “We’re not out of it until the end of the year comes. We’re going to keep fighting and pushing because we’ve got a chance.”
In other words, the Wizards aren’t giving up just yet. And if they happen to accomplish the impossible, you can bet that — just as he has been all season — Bradley Beal will be at the heart of it all.