NORMAN — There is no question that James Harden is the face of the Houston Rockets. The bearded one is not only his team’s best player, he’s their unquestioned leader.
Yet, it’s an unheralded rookie, who was playing in Russia when the season began, who Oklahoma City may have to find an answer for tonight when they take on the Rockets at the Toyota Center in Houston. After only two games, Patrick Beverley has already left an imprint on the series.
“He’s a hard-working, really nice kid,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “In December, he was in St. Petersburg, Russia and now he’s starting in a playoff game. That’s a pretty good story. He’s a great kid, a great young man. He’s a tough little guy from Chicago and he’ll go fight you for it.”
Beverley got the first start of his short NBA career Wednesday in Game 2. He replaced an ineffective Greg Smith in the Rockets’ backcourt.
At the time it looked like a desperate move by McHale to try and find a way to slow down Russell Westbrook, who had dominated Houston’s guards in Game 1. Pitting a rookie in his first playoff series against one of the most explosive players in the league was a mismatch on paper.
But Beverley proved to be more than a gimmick. He was a game-changer. In 41 minutes of aggressive basketball, the 24-year-old responded with 16 points on 7-for-13 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block.
“It’s the playoffs,” Beverley said. “Playing against an All-star. He’s a competitor. I’m a competitor. I’m not going to back down from anybody. It was fun.”
While Beverley’s numbers were impressive, what he will be remembered for now is possibly ending Westbrook’s season after banging into him during a steal attempt. Westbrook played the rest of the game, but the team announced Friday that he will undergo surgery for a meniscus tear in his right knee.
“A play like that, that always happens,” Harden said. “In the game of basketball, when the opponents think a team is going to call time-out, a guy is going to go for the steal. That happened on so many occasions, not just last game. It happened in so many years in the league.”
Even though Beverley didn’t intend to injure Westbrook, the news was not taken well by Oklahoma City fans. He felt the need to defend himself.
“A lot of people do it throughout the league,” Beverley said. “I don’t go out to try and hurt anybody. I tried to make a play on the ball. It’s an unfortunate situation. You hate to see anyone like that go out. He’s an All-Star, a top-three point guard in the NBA.”