To say that Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley have "beef" would be to ascribe too much malice to livestock and undersell the burgeoning rivalry between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets.
That tiff resumed in earnest on Tuesday, during OKC's 106-98 win over the visiting Rockets.
In his first appearance at Chesapeake Energy Arena since last year's playoffs, Beverley wasted little time immersing himself in the role of villain once again. He went after Westbrook not once, but twice in the first quarter alone. Beverley initially went after Westbrook at the 6:10 mark, once OKC had already called timeout:
However, Beverley doesn't feel that he's ever going after a player. "That's how I play against everybody," he said, via The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "No personal battles out there today. I had to go out there and fight and do what I do to try to help our team win a basketball game today."
But that bit of extracurricular harassment was eerily reminiscent of the same play that destabilized Westbrook's knee and not only robbed him of his role in OKC's ill-fated championship push, but also kept him out of 30 games in 2013-14 after two subsequent surgeries:
It's no wonder, then, that Westbrook took such exception to Beverley's pursuit, or that the two of them got into it again when Beverley picked his pocket a minute later:
The two sides continued to trade barbs thereafter, with Reggie Jackson and rookie Steven Adams taking turns hounding former Thunder sixth man James Harden. Even the usually mild-mannered Kevin Durant got in on the string of scuffles, with Francisco Garcia as his target.
But only one team responded to the challenge with something more substantial on the scoreboard.
In the second quarter, a fired-up OKC squad embarked on a 23-5 spurt—the first six points of which came while Beverley sat with foul trouble—to take a commanding 17-point lead that would prove cushion enough in the end.
You could say that the timing of Beverley and the Rockets' return to the scene of the crime was fortuitous, in that it may have jolted the home team from its midseason slumber.
The Thunder had been slumping somewhat since the All-Star break. Between Westbrook's second comeback of the season and the losses of Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha to injury, OKC looked nothing like the finely tuned basketball machine that rolled through January and the first half of February on the strength of Kevin Durant's MVP-caliber play and the settling of his supporting cast into comfortable roles.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, OKC's players had lapsed into bad, over-helping habits on the defensive end, leaving opponents with far too many open looks from beyond the arc. Those lapses certainly contributed to the Thunder dropping five of eight coming out of the All-Star break while allowing an unsightly 108.3 points per 100 possessions.
There were few such concerns against Houston, which brought its fifth-ranked offense and five-game winning streak to the Sooner State. The Thunder held the Rockets to 41.8 percent shooting from the field, with Houston's Big Three of James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons combining to convert just 19 of their 50 attempts—a 38 percent clip, for those of you keeping score at home.
Blaming Beverley's "bulldogging" for OKC's superb showing may be a bit of a stretch. After all, the Thunder had thoroughly dominated their aggressors from Space City in each of their previous two meetings this season, both of which came while Beverley was sidelined by a broken hand.
On this night, though, Beverley's tormenting tactics may have backfired.
Durant was instrumental in keeping the Thunder comfortably ahead, as his 42-point tally would suggest. But only one of those points came during that second-quarter run—on a technical free throw, no less.
Not surprisingly, it was Westbrook who had the biggest impact therein. He scored eight of his 24 points and assisted on a Jackson three during a two-and-a-half-minute span in the middle of the second frame.
Like the rest of his teammates, Westbrook refused to shake hands with any of the Rockets—even Harden—after the game, per The Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson:
I did not see one post-game handshake. Not one. Woooo, I'm pretty sure these teams don't like each other. ;) Thunder 106, Rockets 98.— Jenni Carlson (@JenniCarlson_OK) March 12, 2014
Perhaps Houston will rue the day Beverley decided to pick on Westbrook again. The Thunder now sit three games ahead of Houston in the Western Conference standings and could extend that advantage even further by the time these two budding rivals resume their antagonism at the Toyota Center on April 4.
In trying to tease and tip what they thought would be a docile cow, the Rockets may instead have poked the biggest bear out West, one whose slumber allowed upstarts like Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers to creep into the championship conversation.
But this reawakening could wrap up the race for conference supremacy in favor of Westbrook and company, thanks to a push and a prod from a familiar pest.
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