Bradley Beal is just 20 years old.
I've had to remind myself of this throughout the regular season whenever he attempted a mildly contested long two or frantically dribbled toward the baseline with nowhere to go. He's a career 41-percent shooter with a below league- average player efficiency rating of 14.
But that belies everything we know about the second-year guard. He's become the fourth player in league history to score at least 25 points in three playoff games before he can legally drink.
This wasn't supposed to happen, not against two defensive juggernauts that build an entire scheme to smother the likes of Beal, and certainly not in the playoffs. He's not a full-blown ball handler at this stage in his career and is under a system that commissions open midrange jumpers at the drop of a hat despite it being the most inefficient shot in basketball. Among players to shoot at least 500 midrange jumpers this past season, Beal ranked seventh in attempts, and shot a middling 37.2 percent per NBA.com's stats page, worst among that select group.
But perhaps all of those looks from midrange paved the way to his huge performance in the Wizards' Game 1 win over the Pacers. All of those wasted possessions three months ago that involved Beal as a pick and roll ball handler prepared him to face the Bulls and Pacers in the playoffs. Game 1 of the second round featured a Bradley Beal we have not seen before.
He routinely stayed patient with the ball in his hands. There were plays where he attacked a backpedaling Roy Hibbert in the lane and there were plays where he turned the corner the second Luis Scola retreated to his man after a hard-hedge.
The floater in the lane isn't even the best part of this sequence. Just look at how he keeps the ball up and away from CJ Watson as he zips into the lane and between two defenders.
Or here, on the very next trip down the floor, that led to a trip to the free throw line.
The second unit looked to him in the fourth quarter, and he assumed the responsibility while John Wall rested. This is not the series for Andre Miller -- he doesn't have the foot speed to slip into the crevices of the defense and is up against two very good point guard defenders in George Hill and C.J. Watson. This meant more ball handling duty for Beal, who just so happened to be defended by Paul George.
Atlanta exploited one glaring hole in that Pacers defense in the previous round by spread the floor with five shooters, pushing the ball off rebounds and profiting from Jeff Teague's dribble penetration. Yet Washington did the exact opposite, even with Wall in the game. They slowed it down, used up a lot of the shot clock (which nearly hurt them at the end) and waited until an opening materialized.
They were so good at diverting pick and rolls away from the sideline, where Beal in particular runs into a lot of trouble. That sideline serves as another defender, and once you get suckered toward that path, your option will quickly shrink.
This is where Nene and Gortat made their mark on the game, and it resulted in a lot of open jumpers and rolls to the rim.
Nene initially sets the step-up screen for Beal, which Bradley dribbles around before getting cut off by George. But it's the second screen that Nene flips to the middle of the floor that springs Beal free, which is key. It completely blindsides George and gives Beal enough space to probe before settling on the openish jumper.
This is all on the fly. For all of the strains in dealing with the Beal and Nene two-man game, they've developed great chemistry, and it's prompted Randy Wittman to run these sets in crunch time. Nene seldom dives straight to the hoop, instead preferring the short roll to the elbow that opens up the option of setting up a second screen. Beal can then toss it back to Nene if he picks up his dribble, which leads to a handoff, or he can cross back over and navigate through the second screen. There's not much going on away from the ball, which does get the offense into trouble, but it's one way of easing Beal into his new role.
Indiana just didn't have the ball pressure to get Beal out of his zone. Much like Chicago in round 1, they're not going to make a massive change in their scheme. They prefer their big men hanging back in the lane, and although they strayed away from it briefly in the fourth quarter, I doubt we'll see it for an entire game. The pick and pops with Nene will still be there, which means Beal will always have that safety valve.
It's up to Beal to keep the pressure on the Pacers in Game 2.