The beast pauses as he senses a predator approaching. (Barry Gossage/NBA/Getty Images)
Plenty of things were surprising about the Phoenix Suns' come-from-behind 92-86 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the late game of ESPN's Wednesday night double-header — that the Lakers offense sputtered after three straight strong games helmed by point G.O.A.T. and leader Kobe Bryant, that Steve Nash and Earl Clark both played quietly in their returns to Phoenix, and that after allowing L.A. to shoot 65 percent from the floor in a 32-point third quarter that pushed the Laker lead to 13, the Suns tightened up defensively enough to influence Bryant and company into a dismal 4 for 21 mark from the floor (19 percent) in a 13-point finish that wound up costing L.A. its burgeoning winning streak.
But none of that was as surprising as the performance of Michael Beasley, noted millstone and gremlin-seer, who exploded off the Phoenix bench for a game-high 27 points on surprisingly (there's that word again) efficient 12 for 20 shooting and added six rebounds and five steals in 34 minutes. He was the Suns' go-to option down the stretch, hitting 5 of 6 for 10 points in the fourth, including a scrambling, mad-dash-to-the-rim layup with 43.8 seconds left and the shot clock winding down that gave Phoenix the lead for good.
Considering Beasley's most recent notable action had been "shoveling handfuls of [...] greasy [French fries]" into his mouth before a game, this was kind of a shift in the storyline. So what gives? As Beasley told reporters, including Bob Baum of The Associated Press, after the game, it was just doing what comes naturally:
"I'm just playing aggressive," Beasley said. "I'm trying to turn over a new leaf. No more nonchalant Beas. I'm back to the Beast."
Beasley's self-assessment — which harkens back to one of my favorite Beasley moments of all time, when he told Myles Brown during a 2010 hot streak with the Minnesota Timberwolves, "I'm a monster and every day is Halloween" — is actually borne out a bit by the numbers of late.
The 24-year-old scorer failed to produce regularly under coach Alvin Gentry, scoring 9.4 points and 3.6 rebounds on 37.6 percent shooting, including 31.6 percent from 3-point land, in 21.5 minutes per game in 37 appearances; considering his defensive shortcomings and lack of skills as a facilitator, his inability to fill it up caused him to fall out of favor with the coach. But since Gentry "parted ways" with the Suns and promoted player development executive Lindsey Hunter to the top job, Beasley's played well, nearly doubling his scoring average (18.2 points) on significantly better shooting (53.4 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from deep) in only 2 1/2 more average minutes of run over the last five games.
And, to some extent, the "aggressive" play shows up in his shot chart — he averages 2.4 attempts per game at the rim for the season, according to Hoopdata, but he's gotten that up to 3.6 per game over the past five, thanks to a 5 for 7 mark at the rim against the Lakers, against whom he seemed both eager and able to get into the paint (thanks in part to L.A.'s poor perimeter D and the late fourth-quarter absence of Dwight Howard, who was sidelined after aggravating the labrum tear in his right shoulder. In reality, though, Beasley's big night was buoyed by a nice night from between 16 and 23 feet away — the dreaded low-efficiency long 2-point tries that have long been too big a part of Beas' SuperCoolArsenal. He's making just 32 percent from that distance this season; last night, he hit four of six, more than doubling his regular rate of success.
Maybe Beasley stepped into those jumpers more confidently because he's flipped the aggression switch. Maybe having some success early (7 points on 50 percent shooting in the first quarter) helped him establish a rhythm that made the bucket look bigger later. Or maybe it was one of those nights where the coin just flipped his way more than it typically does. Whatever the cause, the effect seems to be that Beasley's eager to continue trying to play like an animal. Heaven help us all; I can't wait.