Rockets may have given the Thunder the wakeup call they needed
The Thunder have been slumping since the All-Star break, and more specifically, since Russell Westbrook returned. But Tuesday against the Rockets, they seemed to have woken up.
Then he turned and looked over at the Houston Rockets bench, and smiled. Patrick Beverley stood 30 feet away, taking off his mask. And a look of pure satisfaction rolled across Westbrook's snarling face.
Westbrook had just sparked a 15-4 run, capping it with a pull-up trey over Beverley's outstretched hand. It wasn't necessarily vengeance, or revenge, but with the tensions and emotions reaching a boiling point, it certainly had to be satisfying.
You see, the two players have a history, one that began last postseason when Beverley knifed into Westbrook as the Thunder point guard signaled for a timeout on the sideline. The play inadvertantly tore Westbrook's right meniscus, knocking him out for the postseason and causing him to miss 31 games this season.
And with 6:09 left in the first quarter, in the exact same spot on the floor, Beverley pulled the same move on Westbrook as he signaled for a timeout near the sideline. Except this time, it came further after the whistle, and apparently with some actual intent.
"You saw the same thing I saw,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game. I’ll leave it at that.”
Beverley was assessed a technical, and the game went on, but with a new tone clearly set. The two players tussled again, this time at midcourt over a loose ball. No technicals this time, but everyone's blood pressure was certainly raised again.
Beverley's schtick is to be a nuisance, a pesky annoyance that ends up getting into an opposing player's head. And with the history against Westbrook already in place, along with OKC's mercurial point guard's tendency to get caught up in the emotions of a game, Beverley seemed to be winning the battle.
Except Westbrook bottled his fury, unleashing a furious, yet controlled assault on the Rockets.
“You guys know I love Russell. And this is why I really love him,” Brooks said. “He doesn’t like the 58 other point guards he plays against. He’s not out there to make friends. He’s not out there to be anybody’s buddy. And he competes with everything that he has in his body. He’s about playing the right way, about playing a game that we as a coaching staff, that fans, that the organization, can be proud of. That’s what he does every single night. I will never, ever think anything else about what he does. He just plays the way its supposed to be played.”
Since Westbrook's return, the Thunder were 3-5 and experiencing a late season slump of concering proportions. They've dropped games against the Cavs and Lakers, and had allowed 108.3 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. They've seemingly been in coast mode, trying to sleepwalk their way into the postseason.
But with the red-hot Rockets in town, along with Patrick Beverley, the napping giant may have just had the wake-up call its needed.
“We were pumped up mostly because we’d lost two in a row,” Kevin Durant said. “That’s a really good team over there, but we were just focused on trying to win the basketball game, that’s all. We’d lost two in a row, we never want to go three in a row, again. So that’s what we were focused on, that’s what we were trying to avoid. And all that stuff comes with the game and we just try to play through it.”
The Thunder cranked up their trademark defensive intensity, and relied on a tried-and-true gameplan of letting Westbrook's uncaged frenzy spark them early, and Durant's free-flowing purity take them home. The Rockets made a few pushes, cutting OKC's 18-point lead to five as former son James Harden tried to rally the Rockets. But Durant unleashed fireballs of his own, scoring 25 of his 42 in the second half, as the Thunder finished off Houston, 106-98.
“The motivation of what we do, that was our mindset tonight. Come out and play Thunder basketball," Brooks said. "Regardless of who we played and all the other things surrounding it we wanted to come out and give a defensive effort. I thought it was just because we’d lost two games where we had a lead on the road.”
The men at the middle of the tension didn't have much to say about the incident, with Westbrook brushing it off, saying he just cared about winning the game. And Beverley didn't see any issue with what happened.
“No message," he said. "That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles.”
That may indeed be Beverley's mentality, because as an undersized guard that's earned his spot in the league behind grit, toughness and defense, he has to play a certain way to have value. Westbrook though, he may say otherwise, but he took things personal tonight. And so did the Thunder.
With a month remaining before the postseason begins, every team is trying to round into form and find a standard of performance. The Thunder had been slumping, slogging through games with a lackluster intensity and a dangerous indifference. Against the Rockets on Tuesday though, the game felt playoff-ish, with the Oklahoma City crowd foaming at the mouth and the physicality on the floor reaching top tier levels. The Thunder answered the call and got back to their basics. There's been so much talk about how Westbrook might mess up Durant and the Thunder, but that old alpha-beta hierarchy was again established. The defense was active. The closeouts were pinpoint. For the first time in weeks, the Thunder looked like the Thunder.
And with only weeks to go before the games really start to count, the Thunder might've finally flipped their switch back on, and oddly enough, Patrick Beverley might be the man to thank for it.
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