'Sometimes People Need Cheap Shots': Inside the Mind of Westbrook's No. 1 Enemy

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 11, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook (0) protects the ball from the steal attempt by Houston Rockets' Patrick Beverley (2) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Houston, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

Stars shine brilliantly...but they almost never collide.

That's the reason to relish the clash between balls of fire Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook even more than the aesthetically awesome idea of James Harden and Westbrook matching baskets and MVP candidacies in this upcoming Rockets-Thunder first-round playoff series.

Pitting Beverley against Westbrook, with playoff lives on the line? That's two guys who pride themselves on giving more effort than all the pretty people around them.

It's confrontation. It's physicality.

It will absolutely be explosive.

The detonation already blew up Westbrook's knee four years ago in their only other playoff matchup, as a hustling Beverley's inadvertent hip check ended Westbrook's 2012-13 season.

Both players, though, belong to the rare club within the club of the NBA. Everyone in the league is elite, but a few are fundamentally different, according to Beverley—gritty, maybe crazy, and part of a small crew of players who thirst to play hard all the time.

The nonconformists.

The club that has the fight.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Rajon Rondo is the first member's name to come to Beverley's mind, but Westbrook's isn't far behind—even with his rare athleticism and lofty stats.

"I understand Westbrook is another guy out there who plays hard; that's why people think he has that type of angry demeanor—because he plays hard," Beverley told Bleacher Report. "It's not anger. Playing hard is a skill. It's just different. People aren't used to seeing it. You have to respect it."

It's a spirit that rises from men whose careers were not always a given.

"People have their own mindset against Draymond [Green] and [Matthew] Dellavedova. People have written them off at times before, and they came back and proved people wrong," Beverley said. "It's more about the chip on your shoulder than about that anger inside you.

"I think it's the chip on my shoulder that continues to push me to want to get better and better. I guess that's why I don't like most people in the NBA."

Therein lies the beauty of the club with the fight: a willingness to walk and talk their way to the dark side.

Bear in mind Beverley was just a rookie when he got into his initial standoff with Westbrook. He had only been in the league three months, actually, having labored in Ukraine, Greece and Russia before Rockets general manager Daryl Morey created the moment for an NBA opportunity and Beverley's motivation to meet.

"For me, trying to make NBA teams and having the door closed on me many, many times gave me the motivation to go out there and continue to prove people wrong," Beverley said. "That's where my motivation comes from."

That's the chip Beverley sees on the shoulder of every member of the club. Even Westbrook was viewed as too small much of his pre-NBA life as he nurtured his own underdog spirit.

And because Westbrook has that fire, part of his challenge in the upcoming series is not falling into the trap of distraction caused by Beverley's own spirit.

The 6'1", 185-pound Beverley has gotten into plenty of dustups with all shapes and sizes even though pretty much everyone is bigger than he is. He has delivered a push to give LeBron James something to think about. He has moved a shoulder into DeMarcus Cousins' path to stir him up.

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 16: Referee David Jones separates (L) LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and (R) Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets in the fourth quarter at American Airlines Arena on March 16, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Christopher Trotman/Getty Images

Beverley said, however, that he doesn't go into a matchup trying to press any particular buttons on any particular opponents. When he tried to steal the ball from Westbrook in 2014 as the Thunder guard called timeout—prompting Westbrook, amid memories of his 2013 torn meniscus, to point an accusatory finger at him—it's because Beverley hasn't stopped trying to steal the ball from anyone as they call timeout.

"A lot of people look at it as I'm trying to get under people's skin," Beverley said. "That's just who I am. I don't come out here and try to be something I'm not on the basketball court. I'm like this. I get on my girl's nerves. I get on my best friend's nerves. That's who I am.

"I'm not going to come out here and try to change and be a tough guy or anything. … And it comes off as me being an irritant or trying to get under people's skin, and that's not the case at all. It's really just how I play.

"I'm like that in practice, too. … I just play the game a really old-school way, a different type of way. Physical. Very physical. Not dirty, but sometimes people need cheap shots, so it is what it is."

Stephen Curry, who got into a scrap with Beverley in the first quarter of the first game of the first round last season, describes Beverley's approach as "relentless," but will vouch that his relentlessness is not maliciousness.

Curry should know. The two were youth roommates together at skills camps run by James, Paul Pierce and Steve Nash. Beverley has gone to work out with Curry in North Carolina during their NBA summers. After their playoff tussle, the two were laughing about the incident by the next game, and a couple weeks ago the two even posed for pictures with Beverley's family after a Warriors win in Houston.

Beverley appreciates the skills of a Curry or a Westbrook, as he also used to put up similar numbers once upon a time. As a senior for a potent Marshall High team in Chicago, Beverley averaged 37.3 points, 6.0 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 8.0 steals per game.

Yet after a college career that saw him shoot 42 percent in two seasons at Arkansas, Beverley came to understand he would have to find another way into the NBA. While toiling overseas, fellow Chicagoan and fellow fringe NBA player Will Bynum pointedly advised Beverley: "Focus on everything but offense—because everybody in the NBA can score. Your defense has to get you in the door."

"For the most part, you have a lot of skill in this league," Beverley said of the NBA. "Skill gets you a long way. I'm not the most skilled, but I go out there and work extremely hard. I just go hoop. Whatever comes from that, comes from that." 

So Beverley tapped into that relentlessness and became one of the NBA's great pests—even if his three-point shooting (38.4 percent) this season is actually superior to the rates of teammates Eric Gordon (37.3), Trevor Ariza (34.6), Harden (34.5) and Lou Williams (32.5).

Hard as he works on his shot, Beverley remains true to the path Bynum's set out for him—and aspires to be the best defender in the league.

Facing Westbrook now offers a wonderful opportunity to prove that.

Westbrook's campaign to be the league MVP reached its crescendo with his game-winning, buzzer-beating shot in Denver on Sunday. But contrast that moment with what happened back in December when Westbrook needed a winning shot in the final seconds against the Rockets.

Beverley smothered Westbrook all by himself, and the result was an air ball shot under duress by Westbrook.

Though they've had their share of showdowns, the two also have their share of similarities. For all the hype about the 6'3" Westbrook's rebounding this season, the 6'1" Beverley is one of only eight players in NBA history of that height or shorter to average at least 5.5 rebounds (5.8 to be exact) in a single season.

Beverley also leads the league in loose balls recovered per game, is seventh in charges drawn per game and is 17th in deflections per game.

Those are the numbers that measure the fight in a dog who will readily go nose to nose with any Westbrook scowl in the coming days.

What those numbers don't measure is the toughness developed from a childhood spent feeling real fear walking to the corner store on Chicago's West Side or avoiding trouble en route to school in the morning, or from real adversity going through stretches overseas when he couldn't even get on the court or played with blood pouring down his face because of a coin thrown from the stands.

"Not trying to be dirty. Not trying to get on people's nerves. Not trying to be an assh--e," Beverley said. "I just go out there and compete. People might judge that however they want to, but at the end of the day, I'm playing for the Houston Rockets. I'm not playing for anybody else."


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!