Beverley has become the NBA's new favorite heel. He's an instigator, recently causing Portland Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard to say "That's not basketball" to CSN reporters about Beverley's aggressive style.
“I love that kid,” said coach Kevin McHale to reporters before the team’s March 13 matchup against the Chicago Bulls. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid who goes after it every night. He’s ready to fight.”
Beverley’s moxie seems to be impacting the Rockets more and more through their best stretch of the season—at 23-7, Houston’s had the league’s best record since January 1. His harassing style creates turnovers and puts elite Western Conference point guards like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry on tilt.
Perhaps most important, Beverley’s three-point shot has improved dramatically. He shot 40 percent from beyond the arc in February, way up from his season average of 36. This included a game-winning strike against the Phoenix Suns on February 23.
The better Beverley shoots from deep, the more the Rockets can keep him on the floor to pester opponents on the wing and provide his team with an extra dose of confidence.
“Most people play with a chip on their shoulder,” Beverley told Chicago reporters. “I play with more of a mountain. Every time I play I’ve got something to prove.”
Such hunger has become infectious in Houston, where Howard and Harden are more lead-by-example men—superstars who have never exactly been vocal in the locker room. Beverley isn’t much on speeches either, but his tenacious approach has helped his team develop the edge many were unsure they could gain coming into the season.
Every NBA champion, recent and old, has at least one gritty enforcer. For the Miami Heat last year, Chris Andersen’s physicality paid way more dividends than expected when he was signed mid-season. The Dallas Mavericks had Tyson Chandler, the Chicago Bulls of yore supplemented Michael Jordan with bruisers and psychologically tricky men like Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman.
Beverley is not the big body that we’re used to seeing in this role. He can’t exactly help his team tackle their troubles at perimeter defense on lengthier players like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But he’s already shown that his energy and barking theatrics can easily take center stage and create cover for Harden and Howard as they did in the Rockets’ March 11 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Renewing a rivalry begun in last year’s playoffs, Beverley wasted no time getting in Russell Westbrook’s grill and causing him to lose his cool. After some time on the bench, Westbrook returned and had an effective game as the Thunder won, but the loss was primarily on Houston’s bigs. Howard and Terrence Jones combined for an underwhelming 17 points and 13 rebounds against Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams.
Beverley’s ball pressure bothered the Thunder all night, as it has to distributors throughout the season. His hounding of the rock was said to be “as good as any in the league” by Bulls coach and defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau—this before the Bulls chewed Houston up to the tune of 111-87.
Such pressure could be more valuable in a point guard-driven NBA. If the Rockets square off in a seven game series against the Thunder, Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers or Goran Dragic and the Phoenix Suns, it’ll be the ball man Houston is most concerned with slowing, not the guys down low.
Beverley is just the man to do the job.
All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.