By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Is Patrick Beverley a dirty player?
Portland’s Damian Lillard thinks the ornery Houston Rockets point guard takes his agitating tactics beyond the spirit of the game. During last year’s first-round playoff series, Russell Westbrook certainly didn’t appreciate Beverley’s controversial lunge — hustle play or reckless theatrics? — as he pulled up near the Thunder bench to call a timeout. Even so, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks and star Kevin Durant were quick to exonerate Beverley.
Tuesday night was the first time Westbrook and Beverley were back on the same court since the April injury. After the Thunder’s morning shootaround, Westbrook, preparing for just his ninth game back from a third surgery related to the initial injury, stared straight ahead with no interest in giving legs to questions about animosity toward Beverley.
“I don’t care about it to tell you the truth,” Westbrook said. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”
And then Beverley made it all about Westbrook, again. The two tangled immediately with Beverley’s hyperactive defensive tactics stirring up emotions. Then, midway through the first quarter, Westbrook nearly lost it, and for good reason. Just like in the playoff game, he dribbled toward the Thunder bench to call a routine timeout. Beverley brazenly ran up on Westbrook, bumped him torso to torso and got his hands up around Westbrook’s chest.
Westbrook quickly shoved him back as the Thunder bench rose and players and coaches from both teams converged in a completely unexpected and intensely bizarre moment of deja vu. Beverley got hit with a technical.
What did Westbrook think?
“Nothing,” he said. “Just win the game. That’s what my whole objective is, win the game.”
At least in the playoff game, Beverley could go to the video and rightfully claim that he went low on Westbrook targeting the ball, seeking to swipe it before Westbrook could call the timeout, and thus the ensuing collision was purely circumstantial and wholly unintentional.
Not this time. This move was reckless, irresponsible and unnecessary. It was bush league with no intention to make a steal, no intention beyond igniting emotions to potentially dangerous levels between nemeses. Throughout the Thunder’s eventual 106-98 victory, skirmishes flared among multiple players. Three technicals and a Flagrant 1 were called.
Beverley, whose edginess and agitating defense is a needed and appreciated ingredient in the offensive-minded Rockets’ success, said he approached Westbrook as he does every other opponent on every night. It wasn’t personal, he said.
“That’s how I play against everybody,” Beverley said. “No personal battles against anybody. I go out there and fight and do what I do to try to win a basketball game.”
Brooks didn’t seem as sure this time as he did in April.
“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said. “There’s really not much to talk about.”
Said Rockets coach Kevin McHale: “He should be aggressive. This is a game where you play aggressive, good things happen.”
Not this time. Beverley’s over-the-top aggression earned him three first-half fouls, rendering him virtually impotent to slow the bigger, stronger Westbrook, who maintained his composure and shredded Beverley for 24 points on 6-for-14 shooting, plus 11-for-14 at the free-throw line. Westbrook scored nine consecutive points and 11 of 15 during the key stretch of the game during the second quarter to give OKC a 56-41 halftime lead. He opened the third quarter by blowing by Beverley for a layup.
“He just went out there to play to win,” Durant said. “That’s how Russ always plays, with that edge, that intensity.”
Beverley’s teammates defended him with similar words, that his play was not out of character, that the snarling, unbridled tenacity is part of the package.
“Unfortunately it was Russell, but Pat is going to play the same way no matter who it is,” James Harden said. “Unfortunately it was him caught in that situation, but Pat is going to do the same thing Thursday [against the Bulls]. That’s how he makes his money. That’s his identity.”
Nobody wants to change that. But Beverley must understand there are limits of aggression for even the most dogged competitors.
Because nobody wants to be known as being dirty.