For more than a month, Bradley Beal anxiously watched as John Wall shouldered much of the burden of the Washington Wizards’ back court. Beal was relegated to cheerleading in tailored suits at the end of the bench, biding his time until his injured right leg healed.
Without Beal, the undermanned Wizards often won when Wall dazzled, and he dazzled often, earning himself Eastern Conference player of the month honors to boost Washington to an 8-8 record in Beal’s absence. The performance instilled faith that when Beal returned, the Wizards would begin their ascent in the crowded Eastern Conference standings.
A 118-104 trouncing of the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday night offered further validation as Wall and Beal, in his second game back, combined for 50 points to shepherd the Wizards to their fourth straight victory.
“That’s how we pictured it,” Beal said.
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The Wizards (19-19), still without two-fifths of their starting lineup in Otto Porter Jr. (hip) and Marcin Gortat (knee), avenged a 123-106 blowout home loss in November and climbed to .500 for the first time since Dec. 26.
Wall led five players in double figures with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting and added eight assists and seven rebounds. Beal posted 22 points in 22 minutes off the bench, making nine of his 15 shots, including four of seven from three-point range. It was the first time since a Dec. 7 win over the Miami Heat that the duo recorded at least 20 points each.
“Those are two guys who are going to command the ultimate respect from the other team,” Wizards guard Gary Neal said. “With those two guys on the court, the other three guy are going to benefit extremely.”
Washington withstood a frigid first quarter to shoot 52 percent from the field and totaled 34 assists on 49 baskets. Neal, who played with a fever, and DeJuan Blair each scored 12 points off the bench — it was Blair’s first double-figure effort of the season - and Ramon Sessions added 10.
Nene, starting for Gortat for the third straight game, recorded eight points and eight rebounds to head Washington’s rebounding effort as the Wizard outrebounded Indiana 54-35. In all, eight players scored at least eight points and logged at least 21 minutes as Washington’s bench outscored Indiana’s 67-36.
“This is the type of team we envisioned coming into the season,” said Garrett Temple, who scored five points and briefly exited the game in the second quarter with a right shoulder injury. “We have so many guys.”
After sinking a franchise-record 19 three-pointers in the teams’ first meeting in Washington, the Pacers (22-18) went 3-for-17 on Friday. Paul George and C.J. Miles, who combined to make 15 of 17 three-pointers in the initial matchup, went a combined 1 for 9. George scored a team-high 21 points on 6-for-19 shooting, while Miles had just four.
“They missed a lot of open shots,” said Wall, who is playing through a Grade 1 muscle strain near his right knee but insisted he feels as healthy as he has all season. “We came into this game wanting to be more physical and more aggressive. We’ve been playing good defense the last couple of weeks, and we know that has to be our identity.”
Washington’s defense was smothering from the start. The Wizards forced six Pacers turnovers in the game’s first five minutes and held Indiana to six points for nearly half the first quarter.
Trailing 18-9 after a steal and dunk from Kelly Oubre Jr., Indiana countered with a 9-0 spurt, then took its first lead, 21-20, with 2:15 remaining in the period. The gap mushroomed to 27-24 by the end of the quarter as Washington was held to 34.5 percent shooting.
But the Wizards found their shooting touch in the second quarter, pouncing on the Pacers with eight straight points to begin the frame. Indiana, conversely, was in need of Rodney Stuckey’s presence in the second unit. Stuckey, missing his second game because of a right foot sprain, is the Pacers’ best bench scorer and shot creator.
Without the combo guard, Indiana bricked its first eight shots from the field and didn’t score a point until Lavoy Allen’s two-handed flush 4:17 into the period. Washington’s run eventually reached 20-4 and the Wizards didn’t trail again, widening the gulf to 20 points.
“It started and ended with our defense,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “We focused defensively, and that’s been our calling card for these four games, and our defense led to our offense.”
The victory kept Washington within a game of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, where the Boston Celtics, whom they host Saturday night to begin a five-game homestand, are situated. With Beal back in the fold and Gortat set to return Saturday, the Wizards are finally becoming whole.
“There’s no looking back from here on out,” Beal said. “There’s no more excuses.”