NEW YORK -- Bradley Beal's facial expression never changes. The most he'll ever do is smirk, like he did when he was asked what it's like to silence the fans in the self-appointed World's Most Famous Arena for the second time before he can legally drink.
"It's pretty cool, I guess," he said with the same level of enthusiasm as one would for being named Most Likely To Succeed in a high school yearbook.
Earlier, he joked that he was taking so long to get dressed that the Wizards' team bus would leave him behind. A Wizards staffer reminded him that he's Bradley Goddamn Beal, the man (kid?) that just saved the Wizards in a huge late-season game. The bus would wait for him. "I'll take the train," Beal responded with that same little smirk.
But as with any human being, there was a fragile state of mind buried deep beneath the calm exterior. Beal was struggling. Dreadful shooting performances raised concerns about his shot selection and how the Wizards used him. The adjustment to being a pick and roll threat was going slowly, since it exacerbated a tendency to hunt for the first shot available. When the team needed him to play above his means, he too often looked like the green second-year player he is.
He knew it, too.
"I was thinking a little too much previously, pressing too much trying to prove myself, not playing my game," Beal said. "Now, I'm just getting down to taking the ball, taking my time. The shots will come."
This, of course, was downplayed by other Wizards. Randy Wittman gave a fiery speech to the media about how every player goes through shooting slumps. John Wall said he'd periodically remind Beal to attack the basket, but that's it. Marcin Gortat joked that things really started to change when Beal gave him an Instagram shoutout. But every aimed shot drove home the point that Beal was not himself.
Whatever the turning point was, the shots have come the last few games. An 8-12 performance in that rough loss to the Bobcats broke Beal out of his slump, and this 28-point performance in the Wizards' win over the Knicks continued the upward trend. It was a microcosm of the Wizards' philosophy with Beal's development. They stuck with him after a rough start, and he in turn stuck with it. The shots started dropping -- pull-ups, layups, even one dunk. Hesitation moves developed from a year playing out of his comfort zone in the pick and roll created space to fire away.
With all this happening, it was obvious that Beal needed the ball. As Wittman appropriately put it: "When a guy gets hot, you've got to ride that pony."
That led to the last play. The Wizards tried setting up a secondary trigger to get Beal the ball in the corner, but Iman Shumpert recovered beautifully, preventing the shot from going up. Beal had to reset and initially went right, but used his new ability to change speeds to cross back over to the left and finally shed Shumpert. Anthony and Tyson Chandler met him there, but it was too late. Beal had his good look and it swished through.
"That was tough. I wouldn't dare sit here and say that was easy, because Shumpert is a great defender," Beal said. "J.R. [Smith's] a great defender. Everybody that was guarding me was terrific."
It was a small sign that the season-long Beal pick and roll experiment will bear fruit. When asked about Beal playing on the ball more in his second season, Wall said he's noticed the way Beal has developed advanced dribble moves to counter defenses that play up on him. Would Beal have possessed the presence of mind to cross over if he hadn't seen so many different pick and roll coverages over the course of the season? The Wizards would likely say no, but that's a question up for debate.
What's not up for debate: Beal, despite his cool exterior, was not himself recently. There will be a time later in his career where he again will not be himself. The Wizards' approach has always been to preach to Beal that he must pound that rock until it cracked.
On Friday night, it cracked, even if Beal's face didn't necessarily show it.