The stage was set for Russell Westbrook against Patrick Beverley — a showdown that had been brewing for months and more than lived up to the hype.
But the main event had quite the intriguing undercard.
And a developing rivalry between two of the Western Conference’s elite took a most dramatic turn on Tuesday night, with physical feuds aplenty in the Thunder’s needed 106-98 win over the Rockets.
It started with Beverley’s familiar timeout undercut on Westbrook, done in the exact same spot as last season’s run-in that resulted in Westbrook’s knee injury, followed by a pair of tussles between the two.
But from there, the dramatics only built and the bad blood continued to boil.
Reggie Jackson, maybe as a bit of retribution, pulled the same sideline move on James Harden a bit later. Harden took exception, with a little shove, and the two benches continued to chirp at each other.
“Talked to James a little bit after (the game),” Jackson said. “Just something that happened. … That’s what I’ll go with.”
Then later, following a made shot under the Rockets’ hoop, Steven Adams nailed Harden with a forearm under the chin. Harden went down in a flash, maybe exaggerating the contact a bit. Then he rushed to his feet and sprinted into the face of the Thunder rookie.
As this latest skirmish was going on, Scott Brooks made his way over to the fray, chirping at Harden and the officials.
“My mom wouldn’t be proud of me for what I said,” Brooks admitted postgame.
Harden was then seen yelling back at his old coach, saying, “I ain’t flopping,” before wandering over for an animated conversation with some courtside fans during the review.
“Two great teams that want to win,” Harden said postgame. “It’s just that simple. Any time you get that in the NBA, it’s gonna get physical.”
But the chippiness wasn’t done there.
Kevin Durant and Francisco Garcia, maybe feeling a bit left out, decided to renew their budding feud.
In last year’s playoffs, Garcia frustrated Durant with his physical style of play, hounding the Thunder superstar all over the court.
In the third quarter, Houston sicked him on Durant again. And at one point, the two got tangled up, enticing Durant to shove Garcia in the neck area and earn a technical.
As the two were separated, each tossed some pointed expletives at the other — the last of what felt like 85 heated arguments on the night.
“You take it personal,” Durant said postgame. “But it’s not like I hate this guy, I hate this team.”
When the final buzzer sounded, ending a game that had a playoff feel, the two teams treated it like a heated playoff series.
No handshakes, no friendly waves, no postgame visits. Until next time, back to their respective corners.
“To be a rivalry, you have to continue to meet in the playoffs,” Jackson said.
But that’s a fate that doesn’t sound too far off. Two young teams. Two prideful organizations. Two rosters that seem destined for success for years to come. A crash course in the making.
Tuesday night may have just been a small taste. And Kendrick Perkins wasn’t even involved…