Wizards playoff hopes depend on a healthy Bradley Beal


SAN FRANCISCO — Bradley Beal’s first game after Thursday’s trade deadline might have been one of his most intense of the season. It wasn’t his highest scoring — that would be Washington’s jaw-dropping loss to Portland on Feb. 3, in which the Wizards held a 20-point lead and Beal turned in 34 points — but it was close. The guard bullied his way to 32 points in a win against the Indiana Pacers, fought through contact, played to the crowd and went 13 for 18 from the field.

The guard was less bullish about Washington’s off-court maneuvering. Asked about his thoughts on the Wizards’ trade deadline moves — or lack thereof, as the Wizards closed up shop after opening trade deadline season by dealing Rui Hachimura to the Lakers in January — Beal deferred to the organization’s top basketball executive. President and General Manager Tommy Sheppard said the team’s moves around the trade deadline were done with an eye toward keeping together their talented core of Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma.

An intense Bradley Beal lets hot-shooting Wizards toy with the Pacers

When the group is healthy, the front office likes what they see and relishes the idea of letting Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis’s chemistry continue to develop. Washington is 12-13 when they’ve played together this season.

“That’s Shep’s vision, it’s where we are as a team. I think our biggest thing is being healthy, you can’t really evaluate a team that hasn’t been quote-unquote healthy all year, and now this is our team,” Beal said. “You can’t make any adjustments now, you’ve got to ride it out for the rest of the year, 25-plus left. We’ve got to really strap ’em up, lace ’em on, go out there and compete. We’ve shown with this group we can compete with some of the best teams in the league. We’ve just got to stay healthy and put it all together.”

The Wizards’ centerpiece guard has missed 22 games this season with a varied list of injuries and one bout of the coronavirus. On Saturday, Kuzma missed his fourth game of the season and third straight with a left ankle sprain. Porzingis has missed eight.

With health front of mind, Beal said his availability has to be a priority as the Wizards (26-29) spend the rest of the season trying to cement positioning in the play-in tournament.

They sit ninth in the Eastern Conference entering Monday’s game at Golden State — two games back from eighth-place Atlanta and a half-game ahead of No. 10 seed Toronto and No. 11 seed Chicago — and will spend the next eight games playing teams just as hungry as they are. Washington’s next eight opponents are seeded between seventh and 12th in their respective conferences.

“My biggest thing is making sure we’re all playing the right way and we’re having fun doing it, I would say this last month is probably the most fun we’ve had playing the game,” Beal said Saturday. “We’ve enjoyed being out there, we’ve enjoyed each other’s success and it’s just a domino effect, in a way. So these last 20-plus, it starts with me. I’ve got to make sure I’m available, but more than anything locked in and ready to lead.”

When Beal is on court, he’s been a quiet force averaging 22.5 points per game, his lowest tally since the 2015-16 season, and shooting a career-high 52 percent from the field on a modest 16.4 attempts — thanks to Porzingis and Kuzma accounting for a larger percentage of the offense. Beal has been a sneaky-good distributor averaging 5.2 assists per game, and dished a season-high 10 assists against Charlotte on Wednesday.

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Deni Avdija gave Beal hearty praise after his muscular performance Saturday, noting Beal’s passing talent and calling the guard “phenomenal.” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. lauded his defense. And Porzingis has spoken a handful of times this season unprompted about how much he enjoys playing with the three-time all star.

The Wizards are 14-14 this season when Porzingis and Beal share the floor, with both players looking forward to learning each other even more.

When asked Saturday about Porzingis’s praise, Beal’s respect for the big man shone through.

“His versatility on the floor I’ve never seen, I’ve never been a part of, and I enjoy that. I enjoy being able to share the floor with somebody who can relieve a lot of pressure off me, relieve a lot of pressure off the team and go create plays and make plays for us, too,” Beal said. “When he speaks about me, it kind of surprises me sometimes, for sure, because I try to stay as humble as possible … but guys like KP, they continue to push me, continue to motivate me, encourage me and let me know that I’m making the right play, I’m doing a good job leading. That goes a long way. I’m very appreciative that he does that, for sure.”

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