Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley are ready for more after tense exchanges in Game 2
Beverley, 24, signed with the Rockets in January after spending the early portion of the 2012-13 season in Russia. His unusual midseason journey from St. Petersburg landed him in the starting lineup on Wednesday, when Rockets coach Kevin McHale elected to dump forward Greg Smith, who posted a plus-minus of -34 in 17 minutes during Game 1, in favor of a small ball approach.
The athletic, aggressive Beverley responded with 16 points (on seven-for-13 shooting), 12 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 41 minutes, stuffing the stat sheet and setting a new season-high for scoring in the process. Oklahoma City wound up holding on for a 105-102 win, to take a 2-0 lead as the series shifts to Houston for Game 3 on Saturday, but it was Beverley's peskiness that nearly stole the show and seemed to get under Westbrook's skin.
Midway through the second quarter, Westbrook casually brought the ball up the court as the Thunder prepared to take a timeout. Rather than sit back and wait for the dead ball, Beverley lunged across Westbrook's body in search of an open court steal. It was a slightly awkward effort that sent Westbrook crashing to the floor after the two guards banged legs. Westbrook got up, hopped on one leg, slammed the scorer's table, looked over at Houston's bench in disgust, doubled over in pain, and eventually joined Oklahoma City's huddle after glaring back in Beverley's direction once again.
A few minutes later, Beverley again came across Westbrook's body, this time in an attempt to deny Westbrook a pass. The Thunder point guard crashed to the court, prompting Beverley to offer a handshake for sportsmanship purposes. Rather than accept the gesture after twice getting knocked around, Westbrook slapped away Beverley's hand, drawing a smile from the Rockets guard.
The sequence seemed to momentarily supercharge Westbrook, as he stole the ball from Beverley and took it to the house following the first incident. Then, shortly before halftime, Westbrook was whistled for an offensive foul in transition, a clear-out arm swing that could net Beverley a $5,000 flopping fine because he embellished minimal contact.
The tension between the two players gave way a bit as Houston, a No. 8 seed that was blown out in Game 1, managed to hang around with Oklahoma City until the game's closing minutes. Still, the matchup, which should be featured heavily among the storylines as the series continues in Texas, was the subject of post-game discussion, with both players welcoming the face-to-face challenge.
"It's fun," Westbrook told DailyThunder.com, after finishing with 29 points (on 10-for-26 shooting), five rebounds and four assists. "During this time of the year, we got one goal and can't let nobody get in our way. That's how I feel and that's how I want my team to respond as well."
Rockets.com reported that Beverley wasn't going to be intimidated: "Anybody that knows me knows I'm not going to back down from anyone, whether it's Westbrook or anyone else."
Beverley's steal attempt before the timeout was interesting if only because it goes against standard protocol, which generally allows the courtesy for timeouts, especially during the regular season, especially early in games, and especially when it's not a time/score situation that calls for double-teaming or pressuring the ball-handler full-court.
The play brings to mind Caron Butler tricking Jonas Valanciunas at the end of a February blowout. Butler, you will remember, pretended to offer a high-five during a meaningless late-game moment before ripping the ball away in an attempt to add a few more points on the scoreboard. A slightly embarrassed Valanciunas was forced to foul Butler rather than concede a transition dunk. Unlike that play, though, the result in Wednesday's game hadn't been decided, making Beverley's action the work of a man trying to gain a reasonable, if overly ambitious, edge for his team rather than Butler's totally random act of trickery.
Although Westbrook was right to take a bit of offense to Beverley's lunge, given that it nearly had undercutting potential, there's really no hard and fast rule to the "we're about to call a timeout" game situations. For example, Nuggets point guard Andre Miller has pretended that he was heading towards the sideline to call a timeout, only to quickly change paths back towards the hoop in search of a cheap basket. A play like that is generally hailed for its veteran savvy; Beverley's plan here wasn't a terrible one and it wasn't cheap, even if the contact and Westbrook's immediate reaction made everyone gasp a little bit. This is the playoffs and the default setting is "intense," even during routine timeout situations. This sequence should be viewed as a win for Westbrook, whose ability to handle his emotions in tight situations is under a permanent microscope. He managed to negotiate an unusual situation in which he felt wronged without acquiring a technical foul and without taking himself out of the game mentally. He learned that Beverley isn't someone he can take lightly and, in the process, gained a new source of motivation as the Thunder look to make quick work of the Rockets.