Bradley Beal started the game with a bruise under his eye and one on his ego. Beal’s face had been struck by Jerryd Bayless’ elbow a week ago, dropping Beal to the ground and goggles onto his face in subsequent games. The bruise went through the usual transfer from puffiness to darkness, and Beal was done with the goggle by Tuesday night. His ego had been damaged Monday night when the team he now lead in the absence of John Wall suffered its second-worst loss in franchise history.
Beal was in Portland on Tuesday under these circumstances. He was also facing one of the supreme backcourts in the league without Wall. Portland’s duo of Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum were among those who would question Beal’s persistent claim that he and Wall are the best guard tandem in the league. Tuesday, Beal would outscore the pair by himself on the way to a career-high 51 points.
“I kind of came into the game with the mindset of being aggressive from start to finish, especially coming off of the game [Monday] night and the way I’ve played over the previous four or five games,” Beal told reporters after the game. “I wasn’t happy with it so I was more focused, more locked in and was thinking way too much [previously]. [Tuesday] I was just playing and having fun, ultimately, and I kind of knew at halftime that it going to be a good one but I didn’t think I’d get 50 points.”
Reaching the tipping point where his body and skills would allow him to score 51 points, the most by a Portland opponent in the team’s 47-year existence, took multiple summers and a recent disposition change.
Beal’s body betrayed him for years. It wasn’t until the summer before last season that he figured out how to control the stress reactions in his lower right leg. It was the same summer that a maximum contract was bestowed on him. He worked to mechanically alter his body, learning to run, walk and even land differently. That led to a shift among the areas of his body impacted by basketball. His lower right leg, which knocked him off the floor annually, was no longer a bother. Finding a remedy for the problem also allowed him to can the what-ifs. He went through a similar process to Wall. He was paid before everyone seemed sure he should be (though most thought so). Then, good health coupled with maturity to sent him to a new level.
His ball-handling work since has changed his game, elevating it and complicating it for a short time. Beal’s ability and desire to go to the rim is much better than an even last season. Without Wall, who missed his eighth consecutive game because of a left knee swelling, Beal was looked to for more playmaking. He embraced the idea.
“Kind of hate the label of being known as a shooter,” Beal said recently. “That’s one-dimensional. That’s just all you’re known for. I want to be considered as a playmaker. A guy who can put the ball on the floor, create shots for himself, as well as for his teammates. I know that teams are keying in on me more, so I have to be able to get off the ball, make smart decisions with it. Be able to draw defenses in. We have a tremendous shooting corps out here… It’s been a great transition for me. I always feel like I’ve got more to do. Still have more to prove. Still a work in progress. Definitely happy I’m starting to get the label I want.”
But, that also worked against Beal in recent games. Wizards coach Scott Brooks used him as a point guard at times because Wall is out. The idea worked with moderate success at first. It was a disaster against the Detroit Pistons. Beal had seven turnovers that night, hounded into a forgettable evening by one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, Avery Bradley.
The idea was discarded after the bad result. Tim Frazier and Tomas Satoransky have exclusively handled the point guard work in the two games since. It freed Beal to score without thought against the Blazers.
“I was thinking way too much,” Beal said Tuesday night. “I was trying to think about plays and get guys shots, to get them easy ones, and I was myself trying to make every play and I can’t make every play. That’s something I learned and that’s something that I have to continue to be better at and play my game I play. My game is to be aggressive, look to score and if the defense closes on me then make the right play at the end of the day so that’s what I did [Tuesday].”
Beal took a career-high in shot attempts (37), made a career-high in field goals (21) and scored a career-high 51 points, the 12th time in franchise history a Washington player reached the mark. He took seven more shots than the other four starters combined. He scored 30 more points than those four combined. No one has scored more points against Portland as a visiting player. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1972) and Lou Hudson (1970) had scored 49 points each when the Trail Blazers’ franchise was in its infancy.
Oddly, Portland never decided to double-team Beal. It also often switched a big man onto him following a screen. Beal said previously that the key for him in pick-and-roll is to read what the big man is doing: Will he stay to double? Will it be a soft double? Is he showing and recovering? Is it a full switch? Portland made his reads easier. That also made his scoring easier.
The Wizards also won, 106-92, a night after losing by 47 points. Beal was 8-for-26 combined the two games before he arrived in Portland. For a night, he found a record-setting fix developed in summers past.
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