Bradley Beal played almost an hour of basketball on Sunday afternoon. In 55 minutes of a double-overtime slugfest against the Toronto Raptors, Beal took 36 shots from the floor, attempted seven free throws, crashed the boards like a big man, and orchestrated the offense like a point guard. It ended in a career night for Beal: 43 points, and his second-ever triple-double (15 assists and 10 rebounds). But by the time the buzzer sounded and Beal’s Washington Wizards had fallen, 140-138, all he could do was sit on the floor of the Capital One Arena, cross his arms, and put his head down.
The scene was a familiar one for the home crowd—the Wizards had lost, just as they had 25 other times in what has been yet another frustrating season in D.C. But the final result was far less important than the underlying message: Beal has been playing on another level in John Wall’s absence, and the Wizards finally have hope because of it.
The Wizards were en route to being blown out early on Sunday, and it didn’t seem like Beal would put up much of a fight to stop it. It took Beal seven minutes to make his first field goal, and he had only 10 points at halftime. The Wizards trailed the Raptors by as many as 23 points in the game, and were down 14 going into the fourth. Then Beal found a match and set himself on fire.
There wasn’t a shot Beal couldn’t make. He finished over defenders or blew past them. He pulled up from 3 with Steph Curry–like ease and stepped back into fadeaway jumpers with James Harden–like precision. He scored 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the fourth quarter, and drilled the game-tying 3 that sent the game into overtime. But it was more than just the usual dead-eye shooting from one of the league’s best 2-guards. Beal also racked up five assists and four rebounds in the fourth, which are around his season averages for entire games.
Beal has emerged in recent years as one of the best players at his position, but without another All-Star in the backcourt vying for shots and control of the offense, he has become so much more than that. In 12 games without Wall this season, Beal is averaging 31.5 points and 7.1 assists over 40.9 minutes with a 58 true shooting percentage. Wall is out for the season after opting for season-ending surgery on his left heel, and though the Wizards have gone only 5-4 since he’s been out, they have been playing better. Since December 28, the Wiz have a top-10 offense and a middle-of-the pack defense. Their net rating is plus-3.2, six points better than their mark on the season. The success has been a direct product of handing Beal the keys to the car and letting him drive. With Wall, the offense is a monster truck bouncing up and down the dirt track; with Beal, it drives like a Tesla.
For most of his career, Beal’s identity has been wrapped up in his partnership with Wall. Remember when we debated whether Beal and Wall or Curry and Klay Thompson were the better backcourt? At that time, Beal often played in the shadow of the flashier, more explosive, more accomplished Wall. Beal was just a shooter—a Ray Allen type who could space the floor for Wall and knock down a kickout off the point guard’s lightning-quick drives into the paint. Games like Sunday’s overtime thriller erase that notion.
Against Toronto, Beal seamlessly pivoted from incandescent scorer to gritty team player. He drew a charge, he tried to set teammates up for open shots, and he scrambled on defense to guard multiple positions. He threw himself on the floor to force a jump ball, which eventually led to him making a tough layup to tie the game and send it into double overtime. On more than a few drives to the basket, Beal was bumped without a foul call for his troubles. It felt fitting: The officials, like most of the public, probably hasn’t caught up with Beal’s star status, but that’s bound to come if he keeps playing like he has lately.
If Beal keeps this up, his perception won’t be the only thing that changes. For a while now, the assumption was that the Wizards could end up throwing players overboard ahead of the February 7 trade deadline. With the wins slow to come and a salary-cap sheet as bloated as can be, you couldn’t blame them for hitting eject on the season in favor of future assets, even after giving up on young wing Kelly Oubre Jr. and bringing in veteran wing Trevor Ariza to make a playoff push. Otto Porter Jr., who is now coming off the bench, seemed like a luxury that a wins-poor team like the Wizards couldn’t afford. Even Beal, as good as he’s been the past two seasons, has been floated as a possible trade candidate; when you owe Wall an outrageous sum of $170 million over the next four years, desperate measures are in order.
Suddenly, the Wizards have life again. In its past three games, Washington has beaten Philly and Milwaukee, and pushed Toronto to the brink. While all three games came at home, where the Wizards have actually been pretty decent (13-8), you also can’t ignore how different this team looks on the court. There’s an energy to the athletic lineups they’re throwing out there that just didn’t exist when most of the players on the floor were forced to sit and watch Wall go to work. Porter played one of his best games of the season on Sunday (plus-23 in 44 minutes), switching onto all sorts of offensive players and drilling half of his 3-point attempts. After cycling through overpriced veterans in the frontcourt, the Wizards have found something in center Thomas Bryant, who does everything with maximum effort. Tomas Satoransky struggled from the floor on Sunday, but put up a triple-double of his own against the Bucks the game before; the Wizards’ broadcast pointed out more than once late in the game how Beal was encouraging the young guard through his struggles. Everyone the Wizards throw out there is switchy and athletic and able to shoot. It all just works.
Despite all of the struggles and in-fighting this season, Washington is just one-and-a-half games from eighth place in a weak East. Is it the right move to transition to buyers at the deadline and go for another playoff berth? Probably not, considering the draft is their only way to acquire premier talent as long as they’re capped out. Then again, when have the Wizards done the smart thing?
Somewhere out there, in a galaxy far, far away, is an alternate reality where Washington hasn’t given Wall a supermax extension and has instead built around Beal. That’s the problem with the Wizards—even when things go well, as they did on Sunday, the path ahead is still marred by bad deals, sullen looks, and report after report about things not going right. At least for as long as Wall remains out, they can sit back and watch Beal put on a show.