A few weeks ago when the Rockets brought members of their 1994 and ’95 back-to-back championship teams into town for a 20-year reunion, Vernon Maxwell’s chest burst with pride and his eyes lit up with glee at the memories of rattling opponents in head-to-head confrontations.
“Get under their skin, baby,” said Mad Max. “You do that and you got more than half the battle won.”
When the Rockets announced Monday that point guard Patrick Beverley would undergo surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist and be lost for the season, the general reaction around the league was that the Rockets could press on and survive without him. General manager Daryl Morey even went so far as to say in an ESPN radio interview that the Rockets could win the NBA championship without Beverley.
Indeed, as pieces of the starting lineup go, Beverley’s skills as a point guard are the most replaceable. The Rockets will go with the veteran tandem of Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni and by the numbers won’t suffer a drop-off. In fact, entering Monday’s game at Toronto, the Rockets are 9-0 this season with Terry in the starting lineup. The numbers also say Rockets are seven points better per 100 possessions with Beverley off the court and James Harden than they are when the two starters play together.
Beverley, of course, is not the kind of offensive force at his position that many other Western Conference contenders possess — no Stephen Curry or Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard or Tony Parker or Monta Ellis or Mike Conley. Beverley’s numbers are even down from the past two seasons. He’s shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and his PER of 11.4 is the lowest in three NBA seasons.
The Rockets’ offense thrives in the fourth quarter because they put the ball in the hands of the MVP candidate Harden and let him make the decisions and make the plays.
So there are legitimate reasons why the Rockets might not miss an offensive beat without Beverley in the playoffs.
But then there is the defensive end, where Beverley has staked his claim and earned his very place in the NBA. He’s tough, he’s rugged, he’s physical, he’s aggressive to the extreme, maybe even a little dirty. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Not in the playoffs. Not where every slightest edge can make a difference.
Two years ago Beverley’s aggression took Westbrook out of the playoffs. While OKC won the first-round series, it derailed the Thunder’s title hopes. Now in virtually any round and any matchup, the Rockets could face a team — Golden State, Portland, San Antonio — where the point guard is the primary scorer that makes the offense go.
There are times when having an utter nuisance in your lineup can make a difference.
Ask Westbrook. Ask Mad Max.
Getting under their skin is a valuable talent, too, baby.