WASHINGTON -- Rookies are always a mixed bag of expectations. Sure, you think they'll fix your franchise overnight, but you don't really think they'll be your savior. And you definitely don't expect them to make the biggest shot of the game.
"Is he the guy you wanted to have with the ball there, at the end?" asks a reporter in the crowd.
"Yep. That was for him," Randy Wittman replies.
"I just said at the timeout to the guys, ‘How many times have we been in this spot?' It's time for us to be on the other end, to have someone step up and make a play.
"And Bradley made a hell of a shot."
The Last 3 Minutes, and The Longest 12 Seconds
"I was exhausted," says Beal, after having played more than 44 minutes. "But coach said, 'If you think I'm taking you out, you're crazy.'"
With 2:58 to go in the fourth quarter, the Thunder are down 95-90. They're a team full of stars and up-and-coming veterans. They know how to score, they know how to win games at the free throw line and they know how to close out games. After the timeout, Kevin Durant gets the ball. He's fouled by Webster and makes both of his freebies at the line: 95-92.
On the other side down, Beal misses two jumpers. Durant gets the ball, runs to the other end, and slams it home. 94-95, 2:03 to go.
Russell Westbrook fouls Martell Webster on a three-pointer. Four-point play. 1:43 to go, 99-94 Wizard lead. Serge Ibaka makes a jumper. 1:36. 99-96
A.J. Price misses a jumper. Webster misses a jumper. Westbrook misses a jumper. Durant doesn't miss. 99-99. 36 seconds left.
Price takes the next shot and misses. The ball goes out of bounds, and the Wizards retain possession with 12 seconds left.
Even with the seconds ticking away, intense moments like these seem to last forever. There is no timeout called before the last shot, but the coach squeezes in a quick play before the clock started again. Scott Brooks had told his guys to start switching on their pick and roll defense, and the Wizards are ready for it.
"We knew they were doing some switching with their bigs late," Wittman recalls.
The coach goes to his rookie and tells him to make a play.
"We wanted to try to get Perkins matched up on Beal at the end."
"The play in itself was just for me to have a high pick and roll with Kevin [Seraphin]," remembers Beal. "[Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha] tried to switch, but there was a miscommunication, so Sefolosha backed off me and kind of created a lane. "So I just took the floater.... It rolled off my fingers the right way, and thankfully it went in."
Running the moment over and over again in his mind, the playmaker himself was trying to figure out exactly what happened.
"It was instinctual in itself for real, because I didn't know what I was going to do to be honest with you," Beal says after the game. "Coach told me to go make a play, and I was like, 'I don't know what to do.' But I knew Perkins was going to go for it for sure. With the time going down like that, he was going to contest the jump shot."
And he was right. Perkins and Sefolosha both bit on Beal's quick pump-fake.
A Coach's Confidence and a Teenager's Maturity
"He's probably our best one-on-one guy to create an opportunity," Wittman says of Beal afterwards. "He's playing the right way and staying aggressive. [He doesn't go] through a roller-coaster that you'd expect a 19-year-old to go through."
In a season full of lows that can't seem to get any lower, you start counting all the "moral victories" your team gets. A couple of solid defensive possessions. Ahead-of-schedule injury recovery. Transition offense. An alley-oop that seems to tell you that your point guard and his teammates are finally in sync. A sophomore beating the slump. A rookie climbing over the wall.
The thing is, moral victories don't always translate to actual victories. They still show up as an "L" on the schedule, and you still hang your head a little bit lower than a team with a few more W's than you have. Night in, night out, you're craving a win. You've run out of things to make yourself feel better. Winning silences the doubters, the haters, and the voices in your own head. As a wise man once said, "If you need a win like I need a win," then, let's get a Goddamn win.
By putting his faith in his rookie, Wittman cemented a moral victory and a real one
"It felt good coming off my hand," says Beal, grinning ear to ear.
But then, the rookie quickly composed himself. He knows what the win means, but he also knows there's a lot of basketball yet to be played.
"I'm celebrating the shot, but I've got to move on from there."