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Nuggets from my notebook from Tuesday's win over the Rockets

by Darnell Mayberry Modified: March 12, 2014 at 11:05 am •  Published: March 12, 2014

Now we’ve got to see a playoff series between these two teams…

  • Patrick Beverley bit off more than he could chew. Plain and simple. He came out looking to set the tone and send a message. It backfired. And when it did, there was nothing he could do about it.
  • When the Rockets’ point guard banged bodies with Russell Westbrook as he was calling for a timeout in front of his bench midway through the opening period, the scene was reminiscent of the Game 2 play that tore Westbrook’s meniscus and knocked him out of the postseason. Westbrook took exception, turning and telling Beverley what he thought about it before the two had to be separated. Westbrook and the Thunder then promptly put Beverley and the Rockets in their place.
  • Though the Thunder downplayed the source of the night’s emotion after the game, it was clear for everyone to see. Beverley lit a fire under Oklahoma. Yes, the whole state. At that point, the Thunder had two choices: put up a fight, or get punk’d on its home floor. The team chose the former and in the process might have figured out the formula to snap out of this uncharacteristic three-week funk.
  • The Thunder regained its defensive focus, committing to that end of the floor for 48 minutes and eventually halting Houston’s five-game winning streak. OKC held the Rockets to 41.8 percent shooting and 98 points. Houston came in averaging 112.5 points on 48.2 percent shooting since the All-Star break. The Thunder came in yielding 110.2 points on 47.4 percent shooting since the break.
  • “It’s a good feeling (what) I can talk about,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks after the game. “We don’t have to get better on the defensive end tonight. We still are going to work on it. It’s one game, but I thought we did a great job locking up.”
  • For one of the few times since the break, the Thunder played as a unit. Team goals trumped individual desires. That was most evident on the defensive end. OKC got back on defense in transition, closed out on shooters, helped teammates when beat, closed out possessions with rebounds and showed better communication and second and third efforts that haven’t been seen consistently since early February.
  • “We stayed in front of our man for the most part,” said Kevin Durant. “We helped each other out a lot, better than we’ve been doing before, and we made them shoot tough shots…We covered every aspect of our defense.”
  • Houston has now lost twice to the Thunder when OKC was missing at least one starter. On Dec. 29, the Rockets lost by 31 when Westbrook was sidelined. Tonight, they lost despite the Thunder missing defensive studs Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. The 31-point thumping without Westbrook was bad. You could argue this one was worse.
  • James Harden and Dwight Howard, Houston’s best two players, were supposed to have their way with Sefolosha and Perk sidelined with injuries. Instead, Howard was a non-factor for the third time and Harden finished with a near triple-double that was hollow and based more on his high usage rather than his imprint. That has to concern Rockets fans when looking ahead to a potential playoff matchup.
  • Perk was schooling Steven Adams at shootaround Tuesday morning on how to defend Howard, giving the rookie tidbits of information on what the Rockets’ All-Star center likes to do and telling Adams how best to not allow him to do those things while baiting him into doing things he’s not good at. So give Perk an assist for the job Adams did on Howard. Adams wasn’t great by any means. He struggled most with Howard’s first step and baseline spin moves. But as a rookie, you have to be impressed with how Adams competed and stuck with it. Whenever he could, he made Howard’s catches tough and contested shots as best he could without fouling. Even when he did foul, it wasn’t the worst thing, as Howard went 1-for-6 from the stripe. In the end, the biggest mismatch the Rockets had was not just neutralized but taken out of the game.
  • Brooks on how happy he was with Adams’ performance: “I was happy. I was doing jumping jacks during halftime. I was really happy.”
  • Hasheem Thabeet, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka all supplied quality minutes on Howard as well. Again, none of them were perfect. But keeping Howard from getting anything easy went a long way.
  • “I thought our bigs did a good job…just the play of Steven and the play of Hash, just coming in and using their toughness to impact the game regardless of how many minutes they played,” Brooks said.
  • Can’t ignore how Howard missed a ton of shots from within close. Even though the defense was solid, he still whiffed on shots he could have and probably should have made.
  • I’ve got a bunch of thoughts on Beverley, starting with how I’m genuinely torn on the play that led to the altercation. Given the history of what happened the first time he did it, it probably wasn’t smart to pull that move again. And if I was Westbrook and I lost everything he did and had to suffer through as much as he did because of that same situation last spring, I would have turned and swung on Beverley right after he did it again. For real. Consequences be dammed. So I understand anyone who says it was stupid or out of line or whatever else. But here’s the thing about Beverley. That’s who he is. That’s how he plays. It’s what makes him an impact player. He doesn’t have the talent of someone like Westbrook. He’s made his living by knowing one way to play and playing it and that’s all-out. Do I think he did it intentionally to rile up Westbrook, the Thunder and perhaps the fans? No doubt. But that, too, is part of his game. Being a pest. Getting under your skin. Thriving on being the aggressor. Taking you out of your game and then getting the best of you. But because of the unfortunate injury to Westbrook last year, it’s become convenient to ignore all of that, to expect Beverley to change his game. Why? An opponent was injured on a routine play that many point guards, including Westbrook, make if the opportunity presents itself. This is professional sports. You can have all the sympathy in the world for someone and still compete your tail off as you see fit so as to not give your opponent the upper hand. I see nothing at all wrong with that.
  • Beverley on the play, via the Houston Chronicle: “No message. That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles against anybody. I go out there and fight and do what I do to try to win a basketball game.”
  • Harden on the dust-up, also via the Chronicle: “Unfortunately it was Russell, but Pat is going to play the same way no matter who it is. Unfortunately it was him caught in that situation, but Pat is going to do the same thing Thursday. That’s how he makes his money. That’s his identity.”
  • The problem tonight (and last spring to a lesser degree) is that Beverley’s body bump came well after the whistle. At that point, it’s just a dirty play.
  • I sort of wish the situation presented itself again. I wanted to see if Beverley made a play on the ball (call it what you will) in that situation again or if he backed off. If he’s the type of player I believe him to be, Beverley would have done it again. And again, and again and again. And he’ll do it Thursday at Chicago against D.J. Augustin. And Sunday at Miami against Mario Chalmers. If so, you can’t crucify the guy in my eyes. That’s him trying to make a hustle play. But if he backed off, then you could feel free to call him a no-class piece of crap.
  • Beverley is the type of player who you love if he’s on your team and hate if he’s not. Period.
  • And the ironic thing is Beverley and Westbrook have a ton of similarities when it comes to their mental toughness, aggression and personalities as players. I’d even go as far as to say all of that which Westbrook encompasses and helps him excel on the offensive end Beverley has and leads to his effectiveness on the defensive end.
  • As for the play itself, not tonight’s by Beverley but in general, nobody can convince me that it’s a dirty play. If it is, the league needs to put in a rule establishing it as so. Until they do, a player is well within his right to go for a steal in that situation. What if the ref doesn’t see the signal for a timeout and the clock keeps ticking, which has been known to happen? You play till, and sometimes through, the whistle. Don’t talk to me about unwritten rules. There is no unwritten rule. Offensive players have historically lulled the defense to sleep while acting as though they would call timeout only to scoot in for a bucket. And defensive players, if they time it just right, have taken advantage of a careless ball-handler and come up with a steal in that situation. In those two instances, the defense would look foolish if it got scored on, while the defender who came up with a steal would be lauded for a hustle play. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t praise the defense for a hustle play, or fault it for falling asleep, on one hand but then cry foul on the other.
  • Thunder fans should be glad Beverley did what he did, though. Not only did it ignite Westbrook (who soon started abusing Beverley) and the Thunder, but it also took Beverley completely out of the game. The refs started calling everything against Beverley, seemingly in an attempt to settle him down and regain control of the contest. Beverley’s fourth foul was clearly a push-off by Westbrook, but the call went the other way and forced Beverley to the bench with 8:52 left in the third.
  • You’ve got to give Westbrook a ton of credit for how he held his emotions in check in this one. It was a huge question coming into the game, and maybe even a concern. But when Westbrook and Beverley got tangled up again just one minute after the first altercation, the two ending up on the floor in a scrum after Beverley poked away the ball, Westbrook showed extraordinary restraint. Beverley was all over him while the two were on the floor, but Westbrook never threw a punch or anything that would have threatened his availability for this game.
  • Westbrook on what was going through his mind in the middle of all of the chaos: “Nothing. Just win the game. That’s all my whole objective is, to win.”
  • Westbrook smirked when asked whether it was one of the more physical games he’s played this year and said “No. Heck no.”
  • Durant on Westbrook: “He just went out there and played to win. That’s how Russ always plays, with that edge, with that intensity, and tonight was no different. And he took advantage of every opportunity, posting little guys up, getting to the cup, getting to the free throw line, so he was great tonight.”
  • Brooks on the beef: “You saw the same thing I saw. There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game. I’ll just leave it at that.”
  • I found it funny how the Thunder, and from what I can tell, the Rockets tried to downplay the game’s testiness and physicality. Neither team will be able to do so if these squads meet in the playoffs. Believe that. There is some bad blood between these two, from Westbrook and Beverley, to Perk and Howard, to Durant and Francisco Garcia.
  • Heck, Harden even started barking at Brooks after Adams got called for a flagrant one for raking him in the face.
  • Brooks when asked what Harden was yelling at him: “My mom wouldn’t be proud of me what I said.”
  • A potential side but significant benefit to all the beef tonight: the Thunder coming together again as a team. Following the Lakers game, I wrote about how this team was dispersing into a bunch of dudes with different agendas and playing selfish basketball. But when teammates are forced to unite and fight like the Thunder had to do against the Rockets, it can only help rekindle that connection and reestablish that chemistry. That’s what I fully expect to happen.
  • Reggie Jackson’s message-sending, body-to-body bump on Harden midway through the second quarter was a great example of how a little chirping can boost camaraderie. Jackson has been a whipping boy for everyone from Durant to Brooks to the fans over the last few weeks. But he still stuck his neck out for his teammate by attempting to play into Houston’s star player as he crossed halfcourt looking to call a timeout.
  • The next time Jackson wants to send a message, though, I’m going to need him to come harder. He shied away from the contact after Harden braced for it and readied himself to shove back. Still a good show of support, nonetheless.
  • After the way the last two games played out, was there anyone who thought this game was ever in hand? I know I didn’t.
  • The one criticism of the Thunder’s defense tonight was the fouling. Once again, OKC couldn’t control the paint or the perimeter without putting its hands on opposing players. The Thunder committed more fouls than its opponent for the fourth time in five games. Over the past five games, the Thunder has committed 133 fouls to its opponents’ 113. OKC has yielded 169 free throw attempts over that span, 33.8 per game.
  • With 8:31 left in the second quarter, Collison had been whistled for three fouls, Adams, Ibaka and Thabeet had been called for two each.
  • OKC was fortunate the Rockets can’t make free throws. Houston was 23 of 34 from the line. The Rockets were 12 of 22 early on, meaning they made 11 of their final 12. But the early struggles helped OKC pull away.
  • Houston’s 24 first-quarter points were the fewest the Thunder had allowed in nine quarters.
  • The Thunder held the Rockets to 41 first-half points and limited them to 35.1 percent shooting in the opening 24 minutes.
  • Brooks: “It’s one game, but I thought we did a great job locking up to start the game. The physicality that makes us a good basketball team was good tonight. The toughness that we brought to the floor for 48 minutes is what makes us a good team. And we just have to build from here.”
  • I followed up with Brooks before the game about Durant’s comments following the two previous game on the team’s pick-and-roll defense. After losses to the Lakers and Suns, Durant talked about how the team’s scheme of pressuring the ball out so high was spreading the defense out and forcing everyone to scramble. Brooks, to my surprise, responded with a reply that sounded like rare criticism of his players. “We do a lot of different things that, to me, there’s no reason for us to talk about publicly,” Brooks said. “But we do a lot of things defensively that it takes a commitment, and we’ve done a pretty good job with it the last so many years. But if you’re not committed to anything that we do it’s not going to work. You can throw 10 different coverages that we can have. If you’re not going to have the commitment on that end of the floor, it’s not going to work. I’ve been told that many times by my coaches, ‘Give the coverage a chance, and then if it doesn’t work then let’s make an adjustment.’ Right now, we have to give the coverage a chance. It’s worked for a lot of games, and it’s going to continue to work.”
  • When I circled back to Durant, he said he agrees with Brooks about the need for everyone to be committed and on the same page. “We’ve been doing this for the last four years, five years,” Durant said. “We’ve been a great defensive team. So what I was saying is that guys have to commit, on the ball and behind the basketball. That’s what we haven’t been doing. We haven’t been tight. We haven’t been on a string. So we’re definitely going to get that corrected. And on defense, you got to have all five guys. So we definitely have to make the second and third efforts.”
  • Something that’s become clear after four games is Caron Butler will be free for however many corner jumpers he can stomach. Whenever he’s on the floor with Westbrook, Jackson or Durant — which is pretty much all times — he’s getting a good look from either corner. The only question at this point is whether he’ll be able to knock them down consistently going forward. But I know this much. I’m already way more confident when the ball is swung to him in the corner than I have ever been with Sefolosha. After making three of seven 3s tonight, Butler is now 7-for-19 from that distance in his first four games with the Thunder.
  • Jeremy Lamb continues to be a casualty of Caron’s addition. Tonight was the worst it’s been. Lamb played only three minutes, all of them coming in the first half. His minutes have now dipped in four straight games. He played 24 against Charlotte, and unless he’s absolutely scorching I doubt he’ll see that many again this season. He might be passed this point, but a D-League assignment might not be a bad thing for Lamb, just to get him some real minutes and get his confidence back up.
  • Durant missed another three free throws tonight. The good thing is he took 16 of them. But he’s now missed 13 free throws in his past four games. Again, the good thing is he’s taken 52 of them. But that’s 75 percent over the past four games, clearly unlike him. But Durant, perhaps defiantly, said the misses at the stripe haven’t frustrated him. “I don’t care about (percentages),” he said. “Of course, I would love to make them all. But it definitely doesn’t frustrate me. I just got to keep working on them and knock them down when I get a chance.”
  • Durant before the game refused to publicly acknowledge rapper Lil’ B or give him any added attention. The rapper has released several diss tracks about Durant, but KD chose to not respond. “I don’t know who that is,” Durant said. “Who is that?…He needs some attention, I guess. Whoever that is, he needs some help.”
  • Did Kevin McHale bump his head? Why on earth is he playing Jordan Hamilton over Garcia? For the podcast listeners, I think I swung Slater to my side a little on Garcia. He noticed the spark Garcia gave Houston in the fourth with some timely offense and some solid defense on Durant. I’m still a better GM than Slater.
  • Up next: Lakers on Thursday

by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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