John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the pair of point guards with maximum salaries swapped for each other just before training camps opened, stood near the free throw line midway through the fourth quarter and barked at each other Tuesday night at the Toyota Center.
Wall, who readily acknowledged that his adrenaline was pumping hard in his first game against the Washington Wizards after spending the previous decade with the franchise, had the upper hand and apparently wanted to make sure Westbrook heard about it.
Wall had just accounted for all of the Rockets' points during a critical 9-2 run -- getting two buckets, sinking two free throws and dishing for a 3 in the key spurt, giving Houston a double-digit lead in what turned into a 107-88 win. The heated exchange of words that prompted double technical fouls to be called -- "just basic basketball trash talk," Wall said -- happened after Wall stumbled on a Westbrook drive that resulted in a foul with 5:16 remaining.
"That's what two competitive guys do," said Wall, who had nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of the Rockets' third consecutive victory. "Russ been kicking my ass for years. This is only my third win against Russ, I think, since I've been in the league. So that means that he's a hell of a talent.
"I know he's going through injuries, same as I was, and we're just trying to keep getting better, trying to lead our teams. But (it was) just two competitive guys trash-talking. This ain't the first time we trash-talked before, and we know how good that he can be."
Westbrook, whose career record in meetings with Wall dropped to 11-3 with the loss, didn't take such a diplomatic approach when asked about the on-court discussion.
"Now listen, I don't start talking s---," Westbrook said. "I defend myself because I don't just allow people to say just anything, especially when I know the facts as it pertains to anybody on the court playing against (me). So, I think (Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) just started talking s--- because they just started to win, started winning at that time. So, you know, it's cool, though. We play them again."
Westbrook downplayed the meaning of his return to Houston, which had only one player in the starting lineup that was his teammate last season. He spent only one season with the Rockets before requesting a trade.
"I don't like losing to anybody," said Westbrook, who had 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 turnovers in the loss, his second game back after recovering from a quadriceps strain.
The Wizards, however, have lost a lot this season. Washington, which is still missing several players after several games were postponed due to COVID-19 cases, is 3-10 overall and 1-8 in games Westbrook has played.
On the other hand, this was a game Wall was looking forward to since the Wizards traded him, along with a protected future first-round pick, to the Rockets for Westbrook. Wall has admitted several times that he felt slighted that the Wizards didn't give him a chance to continue his career in Washington after coming back from heel and Achilles tendon injuries that sidelined him for two years.
"I just feel like the organization thought I was done, no matter how much hard work I put in over the summer," Wall said during a postgame interview on the Rockets' television broadcast. "They came and watched me. I thought they thought I was done. That's why I came out here and did what I did."
Wall had 15 points and four assists in the first half, highlighted by him going coast-to-coast before going behind his back in the lane and finishing with his left hand in traffic. Wall, who was on a minutes restriction in his second game back after a five-game absence due to a sore knee, struggled in the third quarter, missing all four of his shots from the floor and committing two turnovers. But he closed out the Wizards in the fourth, when Wall combined with Victor Oladipo to score 19 of Houston's 32 points in the new backcourt partners' first game together.
"I've known this guy (Wall) for a long time," said Cousins, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds. "I've seen his approach to big games and games that have some type of importance to him. I've seen him perform every time at a high level, so I didn't expect anything less."