By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Young and Done.
It’s not a law firm. It’s shorthand for Bradley Beal and Drew Gooden, difference-makers for the Washington Wizards in their Game 1 victory over Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals series that began Monday night at cranky-again Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Unlikely difference-makers, frankly, if you go by their career arcs and how neither of them would be anyone’s Goldilocks choice to wreak havoc on the Pacers. Beal is too young – eight weeks shy of his 21st birthday still, after two years on the job as the Wizards’ smooth-shooting off-guard. Even for a guy mature beyond his years and a player who led his team in scoring (19.8 ppg) in the first round against Chicago, each mile of the postseason road is supposed to be tougher, the task too much for kids.
Gooden, on the other hand, was too done, stirred from his Barcalounger at the end of February by Washington’s offer of a 10-day contract that begat a second, then finally a deal to finish the season. The 32-year-old journeyman (nine teams, 12 seasons) was a backup NBA big man in theory more than in practice when the Wizards called. Nearly 11 months had lapsed after his final appearance with Milwaukee late in his little-used (16 games) 2012-13 season.
So there they were, taking over the opener and taking apart Indiana with the sort of unexpected performances the playoffs throw at us just often enough to keep everyone coming back.
Beal scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter and six of them on a pair of 3-pointers that doused any comeback glimmer in the Pacers’ eyes. Paul George completed a 3-point play that made it 82-76 with 7:41 to go, only to have the Wizards find Beal in the left corner. He reached high and shot over Indiana forward Luis Scola with the shot clock about to fire and the lead was back to nine.
It was 87-78 about 80 seconds later when Beal stole the ball from Lance Stephenson and got it back from teammate John Wall. He drained another one to send the Pacers into a timeout, and it was already too late.
“The way I think about it is, I’m 20 years old,” Beal said. “Playing in the playoffs is something I’ve always dreamed about. So why not embrace it? Why not accept that challenge and just have fun with it? That’s all I’m doing man, I’m just having fun on a great team.”
Said Gooden: “I’ve got a nickname for him – Young Pro. When other people ask me about his work ethic, I say, ‘Y’know, he’s always in the gym working on his game.’ So tonight every time he hit a shot, I told him, ‘That’s why you put the work in.’ He was hitting shots with the shot clock going down, with guys in his face, step-backs, three’s … whenever he shoots it, not just me but the whole team knows it’s going in.”
While Beal was breaking the Pacers’ backs, Gooden was crushing their will. On a night when their All-Star (and richly paid) center Roy Hibbert was back in his zero-points, zero-rebounds funk, Gooden came strong with 12 points and 13 rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. It was a performance ripe for one of those shrugs he gave back in March, when he burned Brooklyn and Sacramento with his work inside and even out a few from the arc. Washington crushed the home team on the boards and ate from it (19 second-chance points).
One of the fans who heckled Beal near the end over a free throw he airballed also got on Gooden. “He told me, ‘I thought you retired,’ ” Gooden said. “I said, ‘I did. But they pulled me back in.’ ”
Gooden, who might have figured his nights like Monday were long gone, said he had a role model for what he’s doing now. “I used a guy by the name of Tim Thomas as motivation,” he said. “There was a season where, I think, he left Chicago, went to New York and got waived and was just sitting out for a couple months, three months. Then Amar’e Stoudemire got hurt and he came into Phoenix and had a great playoffs, and almost led them into the Western Conference finals.
“So I used that as motivation that it can be done.”
Actually, Thomas – the No. 7 pick in 1997 – had been dealt to Chicago at the start of 2005-06. But after three appearances, the Bulls drydocked him. Sitting at home, waived in March, he did what Gooden recalled, refurbishing his career briefly by averaging 15.1 points and hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers in 20 postseason games with the Suns.
While Beal, in his precociousness, and Gooden, in his resiliency, might have caught some NBA fans unaware in Game 1, they did precisely what Wizards coach Randy Wittman wanted by staying in the moment. With all the scouting, all the analytics, all the walk-throughs and the practices, you’d think all spontaneity would be wrung from the playoffs.
And then, with a couple of performances like theirs, you find yourself watching and being tempted to do one of these yourself.