For now, basketball needs Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley.
Tuesday night was such great theater at the Toyota Center, as Westbrook and Beverley fought for 94 feet. Sure, Beverley had some help from his Houston Rockets teammates in guarding the Oklahoma City Thunder's star guard. But for the majority of the night, it was Westbrook vs. Beverley.
This series ended with the Rockets knocking off the Thunder in five games and clinching the series with a 105-99 victory.
This game was so contested and emotional that mild-mannered Rockets owner Leslie Alexander rose from his courtside seat to chastise referee Bill Kennedy over a call. Even the Thunder's majority owner, Clay Bennett, made his way to the arena floor, standing in the back corner to watch his superstar take 34 shots against Beverley and a Rockets team that proved it was better.
In the five games, Westbrook averaged a triple-double: 37.4 points, 10.8 assists and 11.6 rebounds. But against Beverley, Westbrook was a mere mortal. He shot 7-for-27 with five turnovers for 27 points in the series. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Beverley guarded Westbrook for 38 half-court plays and held him to 0.71 points per play.
On Tuesday, Westbrook wore down yet again, due in large part to the number of bodies, led by Beverley, that the Rockets ran at him. Westbrook was pitiful in the fourth quarter, when he shot 2-for-11 for nine points. He didn't score his first bucket until 2:14 remained.
You could say Beverley had something -- or everything -- to do with it.
The two men fought so hard that they reached their breaking point with 7:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, when they started jawing at each other. The referees had to do something, so double technicals were given.
Here's Beverley's take: "It's actually the first time we exchanged words this postseason. He's a really good player. He applies a lot of pressure due to his athleticism, his creating ability. He shocked me because he said, 'Look up' and said, 'Nobody can guard me. I got 40 points.' I said, 'That's nice. You took 34 shots to get it.' I'm not trying to bash anybody. Men lie, women lie, and the numbers don't. Collectively, as a unit, we did a great job on him, tried to make him take a lot of tough shots, and the numbers show."
Here are Westbrook's thoughts on the exchange: "He was talking first-team all-defense. I didn't know what he was talking about 'cause I had 42 at the time. I have no idea what he was talking about. Maybe he was dreaming or some s---. I don't know what he was talking about. I guess he wanted to be first-team all-defense. Maybe he was dreaming about it. I don't know."
There's truth in what each is saying.
Beverley says he believes he should be named to the first-team All-NBA defensive team. He has had a wonderful season on the defensive end, and he raised his offensive game, too.
Of course, Westbrook is correct in saying that he was fantastic in this series. You can't dismiss a triple-double average over five games, including a 51-point night, and say it was nothing. There's a reason Westbrook is an MVP candidate. He presented all sorts of fits for the Rockets' defense. The game plan was for Westbrook to do his thing, to make it hard on him and to allow the other Thunder players to have an impact if they could.
The Rockets had little respect for Andre Roberson's game, and though he performed well in the series, he missed six of seven shots in the elimination game. Victor Oladipo was another player the Rockets allowed to shoot, as he went 5-for-26 in the first two games. He settled down some but then reverted to form. In the game to save OKC's season, Oladipo missed 13 of 17 shots.
By sending different defenders at Westbrook after Beverley handled him, the goal was to wear him down, and that's what happened in the fourth quarter.
Beverley was doing just fine on offense in the clincher, going 6-of-10 from the field, and his floater to start the fourth quarter ignited a 14-4 run that pushed the Rockets to an 86-81 lead before Billy Donovan called timeout with 9:15 to play.
The Thunder played catch-up for most of the fourth, as Westbrook missed shot after shot. Beverley, Eric Gordon, James Harden and Lou Williams all got in his way.
When the night was over, Westbrook left the court, and Beverley hugged it out with whomever was left on the floor.
Although this series was in part about the MVP candidates Harden and Westbrook, it also created another great rivalry between Westbrook and Beverley. Personality-wise, Westbrook and Beverley are the same. Each plays with an angry fury and has Harden as one of his closest friends.
Westbrook and Beverley. Beverley and Westbrook. It doesn't matter whose side you're one. These two men are what the NBA needs.
As the Rockets move along to the next round and the Thunder head home thinking about what might have been, one thing is certain: We'll see Beverley and Westbrook again.
The Rockets advanced, but Russell Westbrook and the Thunder were the story once again
The Western Conference playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder was billed as the most exciting matchup of the first round and a chance for top MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook to face off for bragging rights, if not the actual hardware. It was to be a titanic battle between two of the game’s brightest superstars — exactly the kind of storyline that is supposed to define the postseason.
The reality was much less watchable than anticipated, but perhaps more dramatic for it. The Rockets finished off a five-game elimination of the Thunder on Tuesday night, coming back from a five-point deficit through three quarters to win 105-99. As in previous games of the series, the style of basketball on display was often ragged and occasionally downright hideous. However, that ugliness brought out some of the most important qualities in both teams and expressed many of the differences between them, including that involving a superstar who does a lot and one who does nearly everything.
However, the most important stretch of the game occurred with neither Harden nor Westbrook on the court. OKC entered the fourth quarter up 77-72 after a terrific third in which Westbrook scored 20 of the team’s 33 points to turn around a seven-point halftime deficit. Holding a material lead, head coach Billy Donovan opted to rest his superstar in the hope that the team’s secondary players could buck the trend of the series and maintain the advantage.
It did not go as planned. The Rockets outscored the Thunder 14-4 in the mere 2:45 Westbrook sat to turn a five-point lead into a five-point deficit. He returned out of a timeout pressing to get OKC back into the game, and the desperation was apparent. Westbrook shot 2 of 10 in the period (including 0 of 5 from beyond the arc) in a performance similar to the one he put forth in the fourth quarter of Game 2. He tried to do too much, yes, but no one else seemed capable of doing much to help him. The Thunder stayed relatively close and had chances to tie the game late, but their season died as it lived — with Westbrook taking on more responsibilities than any player has in recent NBA history.
It’s probably not worth rehashing all the arguments over Westbrook after 87 games in 2016-17 and plenty more in previous seasons. Nevertheless, what was remarkable about the finish to Game 5 was that nearly all of those familiar points seemed true. Those prone to harp on Westbrook’s weaknesses could point to his insistence on taking 18 3-pointers despite making only five, his lack of trust in his teammates (including on one play where he appeared to block Jerami Grant’s putback attempt), and a seeming inability to find a good shot in crunch time. But those who are inclined to see things from Westbrook’s point of view had plenty of evidence for their case, too. The Thunder really couldn’t do anything without Westbrook on the floor this entire series. There were gaps everywhere — Andre Roberson was a major liability as a target of intentional fouls but had to play for his defensive value, and at times every lineup looked like Westbrook and four players who excel at tapping the ball out on offensive rebounds. Is it really fair to cry “inefficiency” over someone who puts up 47 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists when his teammates do so little to help him?
All these factors played out over the fourth quarter in a scene that often seemed more like a trial than a basketball game. Debates over Westbrook have dominated this season, and Game 5 was something like a closing argument. I suppose that makes June’s MVP announcement the verdict, although it’s a safe bet that everyone will continue to hold the same opinions about him regardless of what happens two months from now.
In such a scenario, the Rockets looked less like the team in control than the beneficiaries of a crisis they didn’t have to solve. But the Rockets’ calm under pressure was itself one of the reasons they won this series — in fact, they actively created many of the situations that foiled the Thunder throughout this series. Mike D’Antoni’s decision to force Roberson to the free-throw line exemplified his decision to forgo his personal preferences and muck up the pace, which also allowed Harden to thrive in a stop-start, foul-laden game. His 34 points were somewhat quiet, but any game in which he takes 17 free throws bears his imprint.
Yet the other Rockets were ultimately the difference in this series. Lou Williams contributed 22 points (7-of-14 FG) to continue a stellar series in which he offered Houston the bench option that OKC sorely lacked. He scored 10 of the 14 points in the Rockets’ game-changing run to start the final period and made a big impact on a night when Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza combined to shoot just 1 of 16 from 3-point range.
Perhaps the lesson of this series is simpler than the interminable exegesis of Westbrook lets on. The Rockets didn’t advance because Harden plays for his teammates more than Westbrook does, but because he has better teammates. Maybe everything else is just a matter of personal taste.