One of the NBA's most heated rivalries got a little more hostile Tuesday night as Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley rekindled their feud in the Thunder's 106-98 win against the Rockets. Kevin Durant led the way with a game-high 42 points.
• Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley get reacquainted. Anyone who has ever set foot on a basketball court has played against someone like Patrick Beverley. He's pushy. He's a pest. He sometimes plays too hard. If he were playing football, he'd be the guy leaping over the pile trying to sack the quarterback as he takes a knee. He's a physical, in-your-face defender who doesn't give you an inch to breathe and makes the game unbearable for you. If you had any say in the matter, he wouldn't even be allowed to play.
The meeting marked the first showdown between the two guards since Game 2 of their first-round series in last year's playoffs. Beverley infamously ended Westbrook's season on an arguably dirty play. Since then, Westbrook has undergone three knee surgeries. Beverley, meanwhile, has earned a reputation -- rightful or not -- for being one of the most irritating and ruthless players in the league.
So when the exact same play happened again on Tuesday in the first quarter -- on the exact same court, at the exact same spot, in the exact same way, involving the exact same two players -- it was pretty mind-blowing.
This time, it didn't end with Westbrook's hobbling off the floor. Instead, it appeared that Westbrook was actually bracing for a repeat episode. He didn't lunge and land awkwardly, but rather kicked out his leg and got in Beverley's face immediately. The two couldn't have been separated quicker -- perhaps Westbrook wasn't the only one anticipating that Beverley would try the same stunt -- but words and pushes were exchanged before cooler heads prevailed.
That play was far from the two players' only tango Tuesday. In fact, 44 seconds into the game, Beverley drew an offensive foul on Westbrook. He tried to pull the chair on him a few minutes later. They were in each other's jerseys the entire night. Beverley was whistled for his third foul in the second quarter and his fifth in the fourth while Westbrook was shooting a three-pointer. The bad blood even carried over to other players, with Francisco Garcia and Durant also getting into a mini-tiff.
But it was the play in the first quarter -- the one eerily similar to the incident last season -- that sparked Westbrook and the Thunder. Oklahoma City outscored Houston 30-17 in the second quarter and Westbrook played angry the rest of the night. Westbrook finished with 24 points (6-of-14 shooting), seven assists and four steals, while Beverley had just two points (1-of-4), three assists and five fouls in 25 minutes.
Westbrook is usually a pretty cool customer -- both on and off the floor -- but there's one player who happens to get under his skin more than the rest of the league combined. Westbrook and Beverley went at it in their first rematch and they'll go at it once more in April before potentially squaring off in a seven-game series this spring.
Westbrook's Thunder got the last laugh Tuesday, much like they did in last year's first-round series. But if Westbrook tries to tell people that Beverley isn't in his head, he's crazy.
• The Thunder played like the more desperate team. Oklahoma City entered the game having lost five of eight since Westbrook's return. The Thunder's most recent defeat, a head-scratching loss to the lowly Lakers on Sunday, burned the deepest.
Integrating Westbrook back into the offense hasn't been easy. But the Thunder have also struggled on defense, a surprising trend for a team ranked fourth in points allowed per possession. Through Monday, the Thunder were just No. 21 in that category since Westbrook's comeback.
But Tuesday's defensive effort was more befitting of the contending Thunder. They held the Rockets to just 41.7 percent shooting and flustered James Harden (28 points, but on 9-of-21 shooting) and Dwight Howard (nine points on 4-of-12) all night. With the losses piling and the team's defense thinning, slowing down one of the NBA's best offenses was a convincing sign for a team on the rebound.
Houston, meanwhile, lost for just the third time in 17 games. With recent wins over Miami, Indiana and Portland, the Rockets have had their fair share of highs of late. Oklahoma City played like the more desperate team Tuesday -- because it was.
• Kevin Durant makes 42 points look easy. How easy? I didn't even feel compelled to mention it until now. Not many players can top 40 points and have it be considered a ho-hum night.
In a contest brimming with stars and motivated players, Durant still managed to tower over the competition. Should Houston play Oklahoma City in the playoffs, it'll be met with a harsh reality: It has no idea how to guard Durant. He's averaging 37 points in three games against the Rockets this season and put up 32.5 per game against them in the playoffs last season. Howard and Beverley are elite defenders, but they play the wrong positions. Harden and Chandler Parsons? Little more than folding chairs for KD.
The Rockets gave some unfortunate souls a chance at slowing down Durant on Tuesday, experiencing the most success with Garcia. But resistance was futile. Durant hit 12-of-22 shots, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, and went 13-of-16 from the free-throw line, carrying OKC's offense throughout the night. While all eyes were glued to what Westbrook and Beverley were going to do next, Durant picked apart the Rockets with an ease that should keep opponents up at night.
It was fitting that the game's dagger came from the sweet-shooting hands of Durant. With just a little over a minute remaining, Durant drove to the hoop, drew a double team and hit a mid-range step-back jumper that sealed the victory. And, likely most satisfying of all, it was over Beverley's stretched hand.