As if the NBA's Western Conference playoff picture wasn't steeped in enough unrelenting competition, Patrick Beverley has dared to add another layer of intrigue and controversy to an already dense fracas.
Standing at a diminutive 6'1" and playing through just his second NBA season, the Houston Rockets point guard has incited emotions much bigger and stronger than himself that could impact the trajectory of this year's postseason.
Statistically, Beverley is a name you shouldn't necessarily know. But you do. Last year's playoffs made sure Beverley was someone you would never forget.
Midway through Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook went to call a timeout. In addition to a time stoppage, he met Beverley, who attempted to strip Westbrook of possession before the whistle blew.
Visibly shaken up, a hobbling Westbrook had to be loosely restrained. The look on his face said everything, even though he returned: This was bad. This was serious.
A torn meniscus sidelined Westbrook into this year and, well, you know the rest. The Thunder barely escaped the Houston Rockets before an exhausted Kevin Durant and friends were pummeled by the Memphis Grizzlies.
In a moment of unsullied effort and fire, and yes, recklessness, Beverley, a relatively unknown "rookie" who played most of his basketball overseas since 2009, changed the course of Oklahoma City's postseason.
Really, he altered the entire playoff field. Who knows how far the Thunder would have gone with a healthy Westbrook? The Western Conference Finals? The NBA Finals?
The absence of answers is both tormenting and ignored. Few talk about it. It's over, done with—no use harping on things you can't change.
Yet, Beverley's latest actions demand reflection. The playoffs haven't even started, and he's at it again.
Same Story, Same Outcome, Different Season
To clarify: Beverley is not literally at it again. He's not injuring opponents, but he's not making friends, either.
Against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, Westbrook and Beverley reunited for another couple of tussles.
First, there was a play almost identical to that of last spring. Westbrook went to call a timeout, almost in the exact same spot as he did in Game 2 last April, and Beverley made a play for the ball, in almost the exact same way he did 11 months prior.
And, well, this happened:
If there were any doubt friction existed between Westbrook and Beverley, it was swiftly eradicated in Tuesday's on-court skirmish.
Really though, for Beverley to pull the same move on Westbrook, in the SAME SPOT, is just unreal.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 12, 2014
If anyone proved daft enough to ignore their second conflict, a third one was thrown in just for kicks.
While chasing a loose ball, Beverley and Westbrook became entangled yet again. There was no post-whistle squabble, and both players emerged unscathed, but they were also clearly frustrated.
"That's how I play against everybody," Beverley said afterward, per 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."
Denying that any bad blood exists between him and Westbrook would usually be futile. And if it were Westbrook skirting the topic, it would be just that—pointless, empty of meaning. For Beverley, irritating opponents is just business as usual.
Westbrook isn't the only NBA star whose skin Beverley has crawled under.
It's irritating. But I was locked into the game to be one hundred percent honest with you. It's irritating that he's doing all that little stuff like flopping, tying you up and all that for the whole game. But I don't really get caught up in that. It's whatever.
Beverley predictably defended his actions, telling Haynes, "It's basketball. That's how basketball is. It's not going to be pretty all the time."
In the aftermath of his tiff with Lillard, Beverley would once again play the "that's just how I play" defense while appearing on The Matt Thomas Show on SportsTalk 790 in Houston:
The way I guard him, the way I guard Steph Curry, the way I guard Chris Paul, the way I guard Goran Dragic. I guard all players the same. I don't look at film on players. I don't look at players' habits. I go out there and impose my will on people and I do what I do, and I'm aggressive on defense.
Damian Lillard whines. I'm not a big fan of that. I don't go out there and try to start fights with anybody. I go out there and play my game.
If this is, in fact, how Beverley plays—and it is—it's going to make for an interesting postseason.
Oh, the Possibilities
The Rockets are battling for a top-three spot in the Western Conference. Realistically, they're still within striking distance of first and second place, so few potential matchups are off-limits.
Portland is a team Houston could face in the first round, while Oklahoma City is one it wouldn't see until the second round or Western Conference Finals. Think about how intense either series would be, with the Thunder's and Blazers' starting point guards liable to own little Beverley voodoo dolls.
Think about how intense any playoff series would be, when defense becomes more pivotal, emotions are running higher and the stakes are greater.
Crazed effort, to the point where it's interpreted as dirty and unsportsmanlike, won't go unnoticed without some sort of response. Players and coaches don't forget—not during that time of year.
Now Reggie Jackson pulls a Beverley on James Harden, and Harden gives him a hard shove. Fun times.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 12, 2014
Drama from the Golden State Warriors-Denver Nuggets series lives on today, with allegations of moles and deliberately vicious defense. The Westbrook-Beverley debacle isn't any different, especially knowing Westbrook has undergone multiple surgeries since the initial incident.
Think that won't matter? Think the Blazers and Thunder won't be playing with additional intolerance against the Rockets? Or that other teams won't take exception to Beverley's aggression?
There's something very real about the impact emotional responses have on a game, on a series. And it works both ways. James Harden admitted after Houston's loss to Oklahoma City that his team was sidetracked by the chaos.
"I think so," he said when asked about it, via the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "If we just stick to what we do, do it to the best of our ability no matter what else is going on, we'll be good. Sometimes we get off and kind of get distracted a little bit."
Could one impulsive decision distract Houston enough to cost it a decisive playoff game? Could Beverley's defense frustrate another opponent to the point of implosion? Or to the point of increased focus?
The Intangible Reaper
So many questions, so little answers.
Predicting what comes next is impossible, more than one month outside the playoffs. Matchups matter, and even then, there's no forecasting what exactly Beverley does and how it's received by both the Rockets and their opponents.
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
But we do know there's a very real chance Beverley continues to be Beverley, gambling on steals, chasing loose balls and embracing the contact that comes with playing at full speed.
Maybe he hits the occasional three-pointer or goes on the desultory scoring binge. Perhaps he swipes a steal here or a steal there.
Or maybe he becomes the ultimate X-factor, impacting Houston's playoff run using his energy and widely criticized and unpopular play style to sway the outcome of a game or series, the implications of which would be both significant and unknown.