Going into Monday night’s 127-106 win in San Antonio, it had been 23 years since the Washington Wizards had beaten the Spurs in Texas. Bradley Beal was just 6 years old. Seven Wizards hadn’t been born.
But it’s the present, not the past, that matters to these surging Wizards, who are now 24-26, winners of six straight and owners of the longest active win streak in the NBA.
That would be surprising enough in itself, but the way Washington is winning is even more remarkable. Over the last six games — and for the whole season, really — the Wizards have won in large part with Beal looking like a second or third option rather than the score-first star who earned a $251 million contract this past summer.
Part of the shift in Beal’s game is because the three-time All-Star is still working his way back from hamstring injuries that have caused him to miss extended stretches. But the bigger reason Beal’s scoring is down — his 22 points per game are his lowest since 2015-16 — can be traced to the guard embracing a different style under coach Wes Unseld Jr.
In his second year of Unseld’s offense, Beal has spent a good chunk of his time playing off the ball. And when it is in his hands, the 29-year-old hasn’t been shy in creating plays for others.
“Everybody’s kind of (noticing) I’m not scoring crazy numbers, I don’t have to,” Beal said on the postgame broadcast after a recent win over New Orleans. “Our team doesn’t require it at all times. We’re a really good diverse team.
“We have a lot of guys that can put the ball on the floor, that can create, that can score the ball.”
Beal’s stats reflect that change.
Earlier in his career, as Beal became a top scorer in the game, it was a given that he would lead Washington in shot attempts. This season, forward Kyle Kuzma leads with 18.2 attempts per game, while Beal (16.1) and Kristaps Porzingis (15.3) rank second and third respectively.
In 30 games this season, Beal has been Washington’s lone leading scorer just nine times — he had another game tied with Porzingis as Washington’s top scorer — and has had 17 games in which he hasn’t been Washington‘s lone leader in shot attempts. In three of the other 13 games, Beal and another Wizard were tied for the most shots.
Together, Washington’s trio of Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis all average nearly 22 points per game. Beal and Kuzma are at that mark exactly, while Porzingis is at 21.8. That’s a stark difference from the years that Beal has clearly been the focus of the team’s offense, averaging several points per game more than his closest teammate.
The data, though, seems to suggest that the Wizards are benefitting this year from Beal taking a reduced role. Washington is 14-6 in games in which Beal plays but is not the team’s leading scorer, 2-7 in the games that he is and 0-1 when he’s tied with a teammate for most points. The Wizards overall have a winning record when Beal suits up this season: 16-14.
The Wizards’ recent surge has put them back into the mix for a spot in the play-in tournament as they’re currently the 9th seed in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday’s action.
Five of the six victories have come on the road.
“This group has finally found a rhythm and a balance,” Unseld told reporters Monday. “And we’re getting healthy. That allows us to have our whole complement and compete at a high level. This road trip has not only been good for us in the win column but also good for our psyche. … We able to play with maybe a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
Regarding Washington’s health, the Wizards’ winning streak happened as soon as Beal returned after missing five straight (and eight of nine) with a hamstring injury. Porzingis also returned Monday following a three-game absence because of an ankle sprain.
Beal has eased his way back into the lineup, too. He has averaged slightly fewer than 30 minutes (29.8) per game over the last six contests, leading to an average of 18.5 points per game.
After beating the Pelicans this past weekend, Beal said Washington’s improved roster has allowed him to “grow other parts of my game.” Though his usage is down, the former first-rounder is having his most efficient season in years.
He’s shooting a career-high 51.2% from the field.
“The beauty of it is we’re constantly building on the game before,” Beal said. “We’re not getting tired of doing the right things.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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