It was only five months ago, in the very same building, that Jayson Tatum handed the Wizards a 50-piece in a dominant performance in the play-in tournament. The Wizards had no answers for him as he brought their lack of size and wing defenders under the spotlight for all to see.
That experience had to factor in when the Wizards made perimeter defense a priority in the offseason by bringing in players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. In the first meeting between the teams since Tatum's 50-point outburst, it was logical to expect one of those guys to start out guarding him. After all, why not try out the new defensive weapons?
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. had another idea on Wednesday night. While he ended up using a mix of defensive coverages and personnel to limit Tatum in a big Wizards road win, he for the most part relied on a guy who was already on the roster: Bradley Beal.
Beal struggled on numerous occasions against Tatum last season and in years past. Aside from the play-in tournament, there was also a Feb. 28 Celtics win where Tatum repeatedly drove through and around a helpless Beal for clutch baskets. Afterward, Beal admitted he could only do so much with a five-inch height difference between them.
But Unseld Jr. has detailed what he sees as untapped potential for Beal on the defensive end. And after Wednesday night's game, in which Tatum shot 9-for-22 from the field and 1-for-6 from three, Unseld Jr. gave Beal a large share of the credit for helping contain one of the best scorers in the world.
"Tatum had that stretch in the third quarter, but I thought [Beal] did a great job - and everyone did because at some point everyone was on him - but my thing is the defensive end. Keep defending," Unseld Jr. said.
"You're gonna make shots, your rhythm will come. He's not forcing shots, he's taking what the defense is giving him. He's trying to play the right way. He hasn't made a lot of them yet, but at some point that dam will break."
Unseld Jr. was responding to a question about Beal not having a good shooting night and what it meant for the Wizards to win on the road in Boston in spite of that. Certainly, it said plenty about their newfound depth and what that has done to help their reliance on him to score.
Beal scored 17 points while shooting 7-for-25 from the field and 0-for-6 from three. As Unseld Jr. said, those shots will start falling eventually. We're talking about a guy who has averaged 30-plus points per game while leading the Eastern Conference in scoring the last two years.
But the Wizards' depth has helped his cause defensively, Unseld Jr. believes. He doesn't have to spend as much energy carrying the offense like he used to and now there are more capable defenders around him. Beal knows he has help if his man gets past him.
Though he didn't shoot well, Beal did help in other areas. He had 10 rebounds and three steals, only the third time in his career he's had at least those numbers in a game.
Beal has taken on the challenge of guarding Tatum before and it's no secret why. Sure, he wants to help his team by guarding the opponent's best player. But they also go way back as best friends, both from the city of St. Louis.
"It's always probably a challenge," Unseld Jr. said. "He and Jayson know each other well and have known each other for a long time, so he probably gets up for him a little bit, which is great. It's a bit of a rivalry. Both of them are dynamic offensive players. We did a heck of a job."
Others deserve credit for helping keep Tatum in check. Kuzma spent time on him, so did Deni Avdija. Caldwell-Pope said of the Wizards' approach that they "wanted to take that personally."
But Beal having the success that he did, particularly in Unseld Jr.'s eyes, should be encouraging. The team had a plan in the offseason to add depth, believing it would benefit not only the team as a whole, but Beal in particular. So far, that plan is working.