PHOENIX — The basketball gods apparently have a keen sense of humor, so ahead of his first meeting with his old team, Bradley Beal was swathed in a gray sweatsuit, his trademark white headband stretched over the hood, rather than purple warmups.
Beal maneuvered gingerly around chairs at half court about an hour before tip-off of the Phoenix Suns’ 112-108 win over the Washington Wizards on Sunday night at Footprint Center. As he shuffled around, his sprained right ankle looked a little bit more like a water balloon than anyone with an ankle would be comfortable with, but he was smiling nonetheless. He embraced a slew of Wizards assistant coaches before Kyle Kuzma walked over for his hug. He walked off the court just after still-new teammate Kevin Durant did and stopped to sign autographs for kids along the way.
Beal has played in just six of the Suns’ 26 games, mostly because of a lingering back issue, though he missed Sunday’s bout after landing awkwardly on Donte DiVincenzo’s foot after making a three-pointer Friday against New York. He is a star who is still acclimating to an organization that doesn’t yet know his habits or preferences by heart. He’s the third prong in a blockbuster trio who have barely had the chance to share the court.
It’s still all so new, after he spent 11 seasons with the Wizards, that he occasionally looks across the locker room, sees Durant, sees Devin Booker and feels, well, weird.
“It’s definitely surreal at times,” he said. “… That’s two guys I competed against for a long time in this league, and now we’re all sharing the opportunity to go compete for a title. It’s surreal in a lot of ways. But it kind of motivates you, too, to just continue to be the best version of yourself you can be.”
But with this surreal scenario comes a sense of freedom. With Phoenix, Beal no longer has to be the lone steward of his team’s energy and playoff aspirations. He compared being teammates with Durant and Booker to the time he spent playing alongside Russell Westbrook during the 2020-21 season — which is to say, at 30, Beal feels inspired again.
He felt the shift in energy the moment he started playing pickup games over the summer.
“… It was totally different than anything I’ve kind of been around. Just seeing K and Book’s approach to the game, just how passionate they are — on top of that, just how talented they are, just very, really, really good basketball players,” Beal said. “For me, it was just embracing that and seeing it early. Obviously, I haven’t had a chance of [playing alongside them] in a big volume so far because of injuries. But even being out there now, you can see the instances of, ‘Okay, we’re clicking really well now’ — even when it’s just two of us out there.”
That’s not to say it wasn’t hard to close a chapter of his career.
“Having a new conversation with the front office, it was, I don’t want to say a sigh of relief, but it was addressing the elephant in the room in some ways. It was like popping a big balloon — like, ‘What are we doing?’ Getting out of limbo,” Beal said. “To hear that [the Wizards] wanted to go in the direction of building younger, moving me to a potential contender, it was tough to hear.”
When he got over the shock of the change, Beal embraced the opportunity. Phoenix is built to be a contender under new owner Mat Ishbia, who is committing north of $129 million on his three stars this season. But with the Suns 10th in the Western Conference at 14-12, they haven’t lived up to the billing.
Case in point: They trailed by 16 late in the second quarter Sunday thanks to a poor shooting half in which they made just 2 of 19 three-pointers as Washington went 8 for 23. The Wizards (4-21) looked to be headed toward their first back-to-back victories of the season until the Suns cut their deficit to six on the first play of the fourth quarter, a basket by Drew Eubanks.
Washington’s offense grew stagnant from there, and Booker gave Phoenix its first lead since early in the first quarter on a three-pointer with 7:17 to go. The Suns controlled the fourth quarter, even without Durant on the floor for much of it.
“I didn’t mind our process,” Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of the fourth, when the Wizards shot 7 for 27 and were outscored 31-19. “I thought there was a lot of positives there. Obviously the fouling in the second half, particularly in the third quarter, got them a little momentum. There was some coverage, lack of communication situations that led to mishaps, a few [Suns] second-chance points. But in general I didn’t think it was an issue with the offense.”
The Wizards trailed by just three with 1:18 left following two free throws by Deni Avdija after Grayson Allen was assessed a technical foul. In the final minute, Daniel Gafford banked in a missed jumper by Tyus Jones to put the Wizards within one before Durant, absent for so much of Phoenix’s storm earlier in the quarter, soared over three Wizards for a dunk on a three-point play that made it 110-106.
Gafford led the Wizards with 26 points and 17 rebounds. Jones continued his strong play from Friday’s home win over the Indiana Pacers with 22 points and 11 assists. Kuzma added 17 points and seven rebounds.
Durant led the Suns with 28 points, Booker had 27, and Phoenix got 35 points from its bench as it triumphed over its newest star’s old team.