The Houston Rockets beat the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers 105-103 on Sunday afternoon, in overtime, in a game that was by turns ugly, brilliantly played, highly theoretical, childish, maddening, and squandered. It was a game that seemed to contain everything that made its participants themselves.
James Harden, the Rockets' primary ambulance-chaser, chucked himself into enough Cavalier chests to shoot 18 free-throws; in the third quarter, as a sort of grace note, Harden also nudged LeBron James's nuts with his shoe. James coupled an effective, if high-volume, day from the field—37 points on 15-35 shooting, many of those attempts being of the familiar superheroic variety—with a disastrous one at the line, where he missed eight of his eleven attempts, including two in overtime that would have given Cleveland a lead with only seconds left. Kevin Love somehow scored 21 despite looking for all the world as if he'd lost his wallet just before tipoff; Josh Smith clanked his four threes with enviable optimism. As if conspiring to confine the game's weirdness to one moment, Harden and James locked arms during a Harden drive late in overtime, an obvious something that led both to implore the referee for a call, with the referee nevertheless refusing to rule.
If the game made for rough playing and ambivalent watching, though, it gave one player just what he wanted. The Rockets' point guard, Patrick Beverley, prefers the slop. He deals in hand checks and charley horses, fevered drives and block/charge nebulosity. He pines for a scrap. So the day's turbulence—the five technical fouls and one flagrant, the skirmishes, pitched complaints, and hard looks—suited him fine.
It was nearly impossible to watch Beverley Sunday without thinking of Anthony Mason, the former frontcourt tough who had passed away a couple days prior. Like Mason, Beverley knocked around Europe and the American minor leagues for a while before reaching the NBA. Like Mason, Beverley seems to keep the memories of those assorted passings-over in his memory's primary slot, betrayed by a persistent, eager-eyed glare. And, like Mason, Beverley would have no job at all were basketball played by more perfect beings, and had it not developed a custom of shoulders and elbows to attend its spelled-out rules.
In the third quarter of Sunday's game, James drove to the bucket and Beverley stepped in to take a charge. He got there late, per the official, and the call was a block, but the real stuff of the play came after the whistle. James, getting up, put a palm to Beverley's chest and pushed him back to the floor; the 6'1", 210-pound Beverley took the offense of a much bigger man. He wrapped his arm around James's shoulder, putting him in as much of a clench as he could muster. The two stayed locked on the floor for some time, a scrum massed and dissolved, and double technicals were awarded.
This was just the latest installment in a career-long refusal to defer to the NBA's ruling class. Search for Patrick Beverley highlights on YouTube, and you will get not quick edits of crossovers and finishes, but something like a defensive CV. Beverley wedges past a screen and jars Chris Paul's dribble loose. Beverley harangues Damian Lillard into a desperate pass, which a teammate intercepts. Beverley gets in any one of a seeming thousand conflicts with Russell Westbrook, the most notorious of which came just as Westbrook prepared to call a timeout in the 2013 playoffs, and Beverley, disinclined to offer the ritual space, cut him off and knocked his knee, ending his season with a meniscus tear.
On this afternoon, the tussle emboldened Beverley. During the ensuing Houston possession, he drove to the middle of the lane, spun over his left shoulder, and tossed in a floater; on the one after that, he drove again and drew a foul. The broadcast used the lull during his free-throws to list Beverley's previous places of employment: BC Dnipro, Olympiakos, Spartak. Next time down, he charged along the baseline, kicked a pass out to Terrence Jones, relocated on the wing, and canned a triple; he later ended his barrage with a nifty pocket pass to Donatas Motiejunas for a layup. It was a small-scale fury, each play coming with a bit of characteristic theater. Beverley lifted his arms to incite the Toyota Center crowd and sunk into his defensive crouches at the half-court line, glowering in the direction of poor Matthew Dellavedova, who for the first time this season may have regretted his association with James.
About an hour later, Beverley would make the Rockets' last field goal, a three-pointer with three minutes left in overtime that gave them the lead for good. It capped a solid night: a dozen points, five rebounds, five assists, countless agitations. After the final horn sounded, though, the talk centered on James's free-throw woes, Harden's keen opportunism, and the Nike and the jockstrap. Beverley's cyclonic turn took its place in back of the macro-narrative.
It is a spot he's used to, and not only because of his anonymous early years as a pro. Superstars aside, these Rockets keep the ball moving and knock down open threes; they are embodiments of an analytic mission statement. Among Houston's regulars, Beverley may be the only exception. He is reckless, stubborn, and, at 38 percent on the year, not all that much of a shooter. He derives his worth more from a kind of insane willingness than from any well-fitting talent. It is likely because of this incongruity that the Rockets emerged as suitors for Goran Dragic at the trade deadline.
But he remains Houston's point guard, for now, and lends their games a welcome charge. Avatar of no revolution, friend of no opponent, beneficiary of no system, Beverley plays hard and pissed off. Watching him tear through the fussiness of a late-winter game is about as straightforward as basketball's pleasures get.