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Houston Rockets 98, Oklahoma City Thunder 106 – Embracing Villainy

Patrick Beverley has been talked about a lot recently. He left a trail of havoc everywhere he went against the Heat, he had his spat with Damian Lillard, he’s been receiving some attention (I’m not sure I’d call it love, exactly) from national media. So tonight all eyes were on him as he returned to Oklahoma City for his first rematch against Russell Westbrook since the incident that first gained him notoriety last year. Boos rained down from the crowd whenever he touched the ball, and there was a charged atmosphere whenever he and Westbrook squared off at the beginning of the possessions. But ultimately that battle and the inevitable testiness that ensued (there were at least three shoving matches at various points of the game) was more of a distraction than a focal point – the Thunder amassed a 10 point cushion in the second quarter and although the Rockets showed signs emulating their escape against Portland a few nights before the Thunder were rock-steady down the stretch to hold them at bay.

Some thoughts:

  • Until tonight, I felt like Beverley had been a bit misunderstood by the world at large. A tenacious defender who plays with a lot of effort, I thought, but not someone who plays mind games or behaves maliciously. However his actions in this game would seem to repudiate that. As Westbrook jogged up the court to call a timeout, Beverley attempted to stage a re-enactment of the famous play from last year’s playoffs on the same exact spot of the court. It was artless and crude – clearly not an attempt to actually go for the ball (since Westbrook was holding the ball in two hands with his back to Beverley), but trying to get Westbrook to lose his cool. Tempers flared, Patrick was (quite rightly) assessed a technical, and I was forced to reconsider my opinion of the man. To me, this was not an action that fit in with the framework of who I thought Beverley was.
  • I said before the game that Westbrook was what scares me about the Thunder. Durant may have dominated the box-score with his 41 effortless points, but it was Russell’s 24 that felt worse. For all that Durant is nigh-on impossible to stop, defenders can at least attempt to make life difficult for him. But Westbrook in the open court is an unstoppable maelstrom of relentless fury, and even making an attempt at slowing him down is difficult. There’s something about the hyper-kinetic way Westbrook drives into the teeth of the defence for a layup or bends it to his will before kicking out for an open three pointer that just feels demoralising in a way that Durant’s cool perfection doesn’t.
  • Howard had an unexpectedly poor game in the post tonight. With Perkins out there was an opportunity there for him to impose himself, but he struggled against Adams, Ibaka and Thabeet. The Thunder commentators (shout out to them by the way – they were very fair and balanced in their calls, unlike some others I could mention) were pointing out how predictable his moves were, and I agree – Howard was attempting to spin baseline every time, almost never going middle. This is a change from his normal MO where he tends to go middle more often, and it didn’t look very good. He kept getting trapped behind the backboard and forced reposition before going up, giving the Thunder defenders time to challenge (and often block) his shot.
  • Francisco Garcia saw some court time for the first time in a while, and did a very good job. I suspect McHale threw him out there because of his history of doing a decent job guarding Durant dating back to the playoffs last year. He made some good defensive plays (including one of his classic unexpected blocks) but was also the catalyst for the Rockets getting back into the game in the fourth quarter as he went 3-4 from behind the arc. Obviously it’s injury dependent, but I’d like to see McHale mix and match between Hamilton and Garcia depending on the matchup – Garcia for teams with good SFs, Hamilton for teams with good SGs.
  • The Rockets managed to cut the lead to 5 at one point in the fourth, but they were unable to get the stops they needed to get back to level terms. From my viewpoint this was down to failing to contain initial penetration off the dribble. In a manner very reminiscent of last year’s playoff series, the Thunder were able to get into the paint often and suck in the help-side defence. Unlike last year though, when the ball was kicked out to an open three point shooter the Thunder’s shooters made their shots. This kept the Rockets’ runs at bay and it was fitting that Westbrook drew a foul from Beverley while taking a three pointer with 90 seconds left to ice the game.

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