Wizards forward Martell Webster gives a thumbs up to the fans after Washington… (Alex Brandon/AP )
Bradley Beal was dragging, having logged more minutes than anyone else, and complaining during an earlier timeout that he was tired. Coach Randy Wittman saw the 19-year-old slouching and gasping but was in no position to cut him any slack with the Washington Wizards more undermanned than usual Monday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Coach said, ‘If you think I’m taking you out, you’re crazy,’ ” Beal said with a grin.
So he played on, and with the game tied following a Kevin Durant-led ambush, Beal had the last play drawn up for him to create, and to learn what it feels like to be the hero.
Beal let time whittle away until he made his move. He pump-faked to get Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha off their feet, then dipped under Perkins to nail a one-handed jumper from the foul line with three-tenths of a second remaining to deliver an improbable 101-99 victory over the defending Western Conference champion at Verizon Center.
“I said, you know, ‘It’s time, for us to be on the other end. To have someone step up and make a play.’ And Bradley made a helluva shot,” Wittman said after the Wizards snapped a five-game losing streak and won their second in a row against the Thunder.
On a topsy-turvy night when conventional wisdom was being challenged almost every possession and bizarre happenings were the norm, it was perhaps appropriate that the youngest and least experienced player on the court was also the calmest, most collected and most clutch.
“I was telling him, ‘A lot of players come into this league and don’t hit shots like that – ever,’ ” said Trevor Ariza, who returned after missing the previous 17 games with a strained left calf and was the first to chest-bump Beal after his shot. “ ‘To get started that early, that’s what we’re looking for, we’re expecting big things out of you.’ He’s coming into his own early.”
Beal attracted attention from Oklahoma City before and after he was drafed third overall by the Wizards last June and justified the interest as he scored 22 points — his third game with at least 20 points in the past five — and converted one of two four-point plays that proved to be the difference for the Wizards.
After making a three-pointer to force overtime in the Wizards’ previous home loss to Brooklyn, Beal said his confidence was “sky high.” Now that he has his first career game-winner, Beal said his confidence is “even higher…I’m staying level-headed. I’m staying humble and I still have a lot of work to do. It was a big shot, but there are still things in the game that I didn’t do well and I want to improve on. I’m celebrating the shot, but I got to move on from it.”
The Wizards (5-28) have already claimed a win over the champion Miami Heat at home, so they have proven that they can upset any team in their building. But the game against Oklahoma City represented the most unlikely of circumstances because of what the Wizards were lacking and what they had encountered in Miami the night before.
One night after their worst finish to a game of the season – when they allowed the Heat to score the final 21 points and went scoreless for more than seven minutes to conclude a 99-71 loss at home – the Wizards got some positive news with the return of point guard A.J. Price and small forward Trevor Ariza. But those additions came with more notable subtractions as leading scorer Jordan Crawford, Nene and Cartier Martin all sat with injuries.
Down to 10 healthy players – nine, considering Chris Singleton’s continuing residence in Wittman’s doghouse — the Wizards received some unexpected contributions from Jan Vesely (season-high 10 points) and Martell Webster (season-high 22 points), while Beal, Emeka Okafor (12 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots) and Kevin Seraphin (19 points) raised their level of play.
“Win or lose, this game, I couldn’t have been more prouder of a group of guys than these guys showed me,” Wittman said. “Having to talk A.J. and Trevor — with the doctor’s approval, all right, I just want to make that clear — that they could give me some minutes. They agreed to it. That showed me a lot there. One thing I did know the nine that we put on the floor, they were going to play hard. I knew that. I knew those nine were going to go out and give everything they had. That’s what they did.”
Perhaps Durant has a soft spot and sympathy for his woebegone hometown team whenever his Thunder (26-8) pays a visit. Last season, the Thunder was responsible for helping the Wizards claim their second win after a 1-12 start. And on Monday, through some inexplicable occurrences, the Wizards claimed their fifth victory.
Durant scored a game-high 29 points, using a five-point outburst to tie the game at 99 on a step back three-pointer over Webster. But in the end, Beal had the last shot — and the last dance, as he gleefully celebrated one of the more unlikely wins of the season.