With the playoffs a month away, the best explanation for the Thunder’s recent slip was chalking it up to a March malaise, slacking off with the starting line to the real season so close to within range. Their defense has been porous, they’ve been sloppy with the ball and they’ve been doing uncharacteristic things, like most notably, losing.
But Patrick Beverley and the Rockets may have just given the bear the poke it has desperately needed.
There was already a tangible intensity in the building before The Incident, Part II happened, but once Beverley rushed Russell Westbrook on the sideline calling a timeout — in the exact same spot as he did last postseason — it was game the eff on. Postgame, Scott Brooks and every player downplayed the chippyness and physicality of the game, almost to the extreme, but there was no question: When Beverley swiped at Westbrook, the Thunder went into kill mode.
“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said of Beverley’s play. “There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game. I’ll leave it at that.”
Beverley and Westbrook scrapped again, this time at midcourt, with the two getting tangled going for a loose ball. Emotions were exchanged, and once more, the game twisted the screw a little tighter.
The question was, would Beverley’ tactics derail Westbrook and force him into one of his manic, out-of-control, reckless one-on-one matches? Or could he channel his anger and fury for good?
The answer came with 7:41 left in the second as Westbrook checked back in the game, with OKC leading six. After a Caron Butler 3, Westbrook darted to the rim for a soaring layup to put the Thunder up nine. Then he beat Beverley off the dribble and fired a ridiculous kickout to Reggie Jackson who splashed from deep. Then he attacked the rim, drawing free throws. Then he muscled his way to the rim for another layup. And then he capped it off with an off-balance 3, forcing a Rockets timeout. Westbrook snarled his way out to midcourt, flexing and staring into the crowd. But before he walked back to OKC’s bench, he shot a glance over at Houston’s where Beverley was taking off his mask.
“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.”
The talking points from the team after the game was almost all diplomatic, saying it wasn’t about the atmosphere or the extracurricular stuff that went on. But there’s no doubt that once Beverley went at Westbrook, the Thunder found that edge they’ve been missing since the All-Star break. Every player on the floor locked in, every player was intent on stopping the man in front of him. The defensive pride was restored, mostly out of pure dislike and animosity. At least that’s what it looked like. The team just said it was any other game and they only played really hard because they didn’t want to lose a third straight.
“We were pumped up mostly because we’d lost two in a row,” 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.”
Said Westbrook: “We were already ready to go from the get-go. We’d lost two in a row.”
Said Brooks: “The motivation of what we do, that was our mindset tonight. Come out and play Thunder basketball … 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.”
Whatever the reason was for the Thunder’s renewed defensive focus, it was welcomed. The Rockets made a few fourth quarter pushes, but OKC led by at least five through virtually the entire second half, with Durant slamming the door when Houston cracked it back open. He had 42 on 12-22 shooting, and with Westbrook’s first half spark playing a key part, it was like the Thunder got back to that natural hierarchy that’s been featured the last few years. Westbrook plays the relentless, manic crazy-person role, sparking runs with his energy and effort, while Durant makes big shots in big moments. Even against a really good team like the Rockets, the fourth quarter carried that old quiet confidence with it, like Westbrook and Durant weren’t going to let this one slip away.
But it’s all over with. We thought maybe the Thunder had right-tracked themselves with wins over the Bobcats, Grizzlies and Sixers, but then those bad habits came back. This seemed different, though. The game went to a playoff-like intensity, with the building reaching a boiling point in the first half. And that’s when the Thunder showed what they’re capable of. They maintained their poise while matching the intensity of their opponent. It was almost like we got a tease of them flipping their playoff switch.
“We’ve got to move past it though,” Durant said. “It was a good win, but it’s over with tomorrow morning.”
- Disclaimer: Like 2,000 things happened in this game, so there’s a chance I forgot something. Please forgive me.
- Remember: Westbrook said today that there was nothing leftover from the play last postseason where he was hurt. But as soon as Beverley made a move to him on the sideline as he motioned for timeout, it was on. Westbrook went into Hulk mode, going directly for Beverley.
- The thing about the play was that it happened in the same place and in the exact same manner. Westbrook was mindlessly wandering to the sideline, motioning for timeout as Beverley attacked the ball. Playing to the whistle? Sure. That’s his thing, and he has a right to do it. But with the history here, that was just plain dumb. I never thought the original play last April was dirty or intentional. It was just an accidental, freak thing that unfortunately hurt Westbrook. This one was different. Some could say it was just Beverley’s attempt to get in Westbrook’s head, and while he absolutely did, that doesn’t make it OK or a fair play.
- Westbrook: “Nothing. Just win the game. That’s what my whole objective is. To win.”
- Westbrook, asked if this was one of the more physical games he’s played in: “No. Heck no.”
- Most interesting about the Beverley play? He was the only one called for a technical. The officiating crew knew exactly what the history was there, and exactly what his intent was.
- Later in the half, James Harden went to call timeout on his sideline, and Reggie Jackson returned the favor, rushing him as he motioned for it. The two bumped chests and exchanged words. Said Jackson, “Just happened. I talked to James a little bit after, but it’s just something that happened. That’s what I’ll go with … It wasn’t really that confrontational. Maybe just a little lovetap from being teammates for two years.”
- Jackson, though? He wasn’t hit with a technical. Probably should’ve been.
- After Beverley fouled Westbrook on a 3, Durant walked by the pesky Houston point guard laughing exaggeratedly. It was spectacular.
- A fan behind me called Beverley a “piece of crap” after the play. Beverley did not go into the stands and push him, though. Later, a fan yelled Beverley’s name, he heard it turning around and looking right at the guy. The fan was pointing his thumbs down. Beverley nodded smugly and said, “Thank you.”
- Beverley: “No message. That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles.”
- Durant on Westbrook: “He just went out there to play to win. That’s how Russell always plays. With that edge, with that intensity and tonight was no different.”
- KD on the Rockets: “I don’t think they’re chippy. They’re not a dirty team. They play hard. You have to give them credit, they play extremely hard and so do we. We know how to control that I guess.”
- By the way, Westbrook in 30 minutes: 21 points on 6-14, four rebounds, seven assists and four steals. He had five turnovers, but three came in the open three minutes, and he had zero in the second half.
- Steven Adams quietly played some kind of great game. He didn’t get the crunchtime call against Howard, but he saw basically all of the assignment the first three quarters. Howard finished 4-12 for nine points and 10 rebounds, essentially on his average of the other two meetings against OKC. Maybe it’s just a great scheme the Thunder have against him. But Adams battled him, pushed him, and fought on the boards. His double-double against the Pistons was great, but this is the best game Adams has played in a Thunder uniform, and gave a long shout at what he could potentially be in the future.
- Brooks on Adams’ defensive effort: “I was happy. I was doing jumping jacks at halftime.”
- Howard in three games against OKC this season: 9.6 points on 13-38 shooting (34 percent) and 9.3 rebounds.
- Oh yeah, and Serge Ibaka: 12 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. The Thunder played small basically the entire fourth quarter, and Ibaka did a tremendous job of controlling the paint and the boards. He stood Howard up multiple times and was excellent protecting the rim.
- The Thunder’s closing lineup tonight: Westbrook, Fisher, Butler, Durant and Ibaka. I have a feeling you’re going to see some variation of this lineup a lot in the coming weeks to finish games. Maybe swap Fisher for Jackson or Lamb (or Sefolosha when he returns).
- Butler provided some high quality minutes. Knocked down a big corner 3 in crunchtime, had a few nice defensive possessions and contributed a number of winning plays. In 29 minutes, 11 points on 4-10 shooting, 3-7 from 3.
- My favorite part of the game: When Harden and Steven Adams got tangled and Harden got sniped, he got in Adams face, going right at him. Adams completely ignored him, looking over his head and talking only to the referee about the call. Adams’ badassness knows no bounds.
- You have to give it to Beverley, though. The guy really doesn’t have a whole lot of actual NBA skill, but he’s made a career out of playing his butt off and bulldogging the hell out of people. He knows exactly who he is, and what he’s capable of, and he’s embraced every bit of it.
- KD looooooooooooves roasting Francisco Garcia. After that step-back in his mouth late in the fourth, I thought KD might tear off his jersey.
- Something about guys like Beverley and Garcia: Some see them as pesky and tough. But the only players that really play like that are the ones that know they’re overmatched, so they’ve got to resort to something else — typically trying to get under their opponent’s skin — to even out the battle. Everyone’s seen that guy at pickup. He’s undersized and doesn’t have the athleticism to play with the guy he’s checking, so he tries to get hyper-aggressive and plays just a little too hard. That’s Beverley and Garcia. They both absolutely got under KD and Westbrook’s skin, but that didn’t stop either from filling the statsheet.
- Durant dropped his 11th game with at least 40, and extended his 25-point streak to 29, tying his career-long.
- Via Jason Friedman, Harden told some courtside OKC fans, “You loved me when I was here, though. It’s that simple.” Best response I saw to that: “And? I used to love Linkin Park, too.”
- Jeremy Lamb, who had 22 on 8-10 against the Rockets earlier in the season, was completely absent tonight, largely because he played only three total minutes. Just his second scoreless game of the season.
- Perk has wisely spent his time out growing a beard.
- Nick Collison: two minutes, three fouls.
- One thing I want to note: The OKC media — myself very much included — failed pretty big time tonight in asking Westbrook about the first half confrontation. He got one actual question about it in the 90 seconds he talked, and it was a pretty soft one. We let him off the hook. Just gotta get back, watch film, and learn how we can be better.
- Harden against the Thunder including the playoffs: 3-9 with an average losing margin of 13.2.
- I asked KD about Lil B pregame: “I don’t know who that is … I guess he needs attention … whoever that guy is, he needs some help.”
Next up: Home against the Lakers on Thursday