The Oklahoma Thunder have made one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NBA history. After winning only 21 games last year (or in a glass half-empty view, losing 61 games), they now are 5th in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. They are in the middle of the longest current winning streak in the league (nine games), and they have third-year phenom, Kevin Durant, a legit MVP candidate. It could be argued that Durant is second in the MVP race to only LeBron. Plus, he’s in the middle of a streak of having scored 25+ points in 27 straight games. At first that last statement didn’t seem that impressive to me, ‘cuz after all like LeBron and Carmelo are averaging nearly 30 a game, while others like Kobe and Allen Iverson have averaged that much (or more) for a whole season too. However, in the last 35 years there is only one person who has ever accomplished that feat: Michael Jordan. Yup, no other active player has done it. Not LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Shaq, AI or even the Knicks’ newbie, TMac (a man who’s lead the league in scoring a couple of times).
All of which goes to say that after the way the Knicks have been playing, it was pretty darn remarkable we almost won this game, let alone played well. The big story, as everyone’s already heard, is Tracy McGrady’s big game. That he’s back. Not to be glass-half-empty again (what am I, thirsty or something?), but I’m skeptical that he can bring that kind of production regularly. What I do think that he can help keep bringing back is the energy in the Garden. The crowd was more alive than they are on Free Taco Night. Okay, there’s no Free Taco Night (the correct question here is: why the hell not?), but Madison Square was rocking Saturday night. For once, people came to see the Knicks, not the other team, or just to be “seen.”
While TMac was really good, I felt like his two new brothers-in-acquisition are the ones who truly brought some energy and enthusiasm to the court. New point guard, Sergio Rodriguez, aka Spanish Chocolate, is a wonderful constant whirlwind, always probing the defense. Likewise, shooting guard (and maybe sometime point guard for us?) Eddie House had only one speed: hustle. House’s shot can be fluky (on Saturday it was brilliantly on), but he has one of the quickest releases in the league. That makes him a constant threat from three-point land (unlike Danilo Gallinari who needs a bunch more space to get his shot off despite the fact that he’s literally half a foot taller than House and usually a couple of inches taller than his defenders).
Hopefully House will stretch the opposing team’s defenders out, while Spanish Chocolate will cause Chris Duhon to be permanently nailed to the bench. Also, when you’ve got two guys hustling that hard, it becomes contagious and should effect the rest of the team. Even though Jared Jeffries and Nate Robinson would hustle, it was only at certain times. Initially when Jeffries started getting playing time, he was all over the court on defense, helping everyone. However, once Coach Mike D’Antoni made Jeffries the official point guard defender, he no longer was able to help out and the whole defense became mired in quagmire (an odd thing since usually it’s offenses that die when there’s no ball movement, but defensively since the Knicks aren’t good one-on-one defenders, their D is all about switches and helping. That falls apart if there’s not constant movement to come to each other’s aid). Likewise, Nate Robinson, while a bundle of energy, was so focused on properly running the offense that he didn’t drive as much or as frequently as he should.
But that’s the past. Let’s talk about the present. First, for those who missed the game… McGrady, having not played since December, was able to go for 32 minutes and scored 26 points. He got tired at the end and was too gassed to play overtime. In fact, he missed both free throw attempts in the closing minutes of regulation that would’ve iced the game. D’Antoni said it was ‘cuz McGrady was tired, and TMac said it was due to lack of concentration, but the truth is those are the same things. As you get tired, you get less oxygen to your brain, literally making it tough to concentrate (for an extreme example read about people who climb say Mount Everest where there’s barely any oxygen near the summit. Fact is, many of ‘em die ‘cuz their brains ain’t working at their best and they make dumb decisions as to whether to continue or not).
But ya certainly can’t blame the loss on McGrady. He was the one who helped get the Knicks up by six points with barely a minute left. And the Thunder were clutch in those closing minutes. If TMac’s to blame for missing those free throws, then David Lee is just as much to blame for his awful defense in the closing seconds. The Knicks were up by three with just seconds left. Lee, watching Oklahoma’s phenom point guard Russell Westbrook dribble the ball, hung in the paint to help if Westbrook beat his man. Thing is, a two wouldn’t’ve helped the Thunder. As a result, while Lee hung in the paint, his man went up and provided a pick for Kevin Durant at the three-point line. Lee should’ve been out there to help/switch onto Durant. Instead, the Durantula had a wide-open three, making it one of his easier shots of the evening. Then in overtime, without the exhausted McGrady, the Knicks couldn’t hold onto the lead.
Okay, okay, you want me to back up and bit ‘cuz you’re confused: what makes me say I’m skeptical that TMac will be able to play consistently at this level? ESPN’s TrueHoop had an interesting article on what to expect from TMac:
Don’t expect a high-flier
I spoke to three NBA professionals who know McGrady’s game well, and have extensive notes based on their observations. Then I found that Rahat Huq of the TrueHoop Network blog Red94 had already nailed it: “Even when healthy, scoring inside has been Tracy McGrady’s Achilles heel since I have been following him. Hard to believe because we all remember the dunks from his younger days. As he has aged, most likely out of fear, he just simply avoids driving to the basket at all costs. This includes the fourth quarter of Game 7′s with opponents in the penalty. If you look at my game analysis during his return, he did valiantly try to drive to the hole on certain occasions, much more aggressively than in years past, most likely in hopes of assuaging the concerns of watching eyes. The problem was that he simply did not have even a modicum of explosion. That could possibly change as the leg builds strength, but his fear of contact will not.”
Do expect a top-shelf passer
Again, Rahat Huq: “Primarily what he brings, contrary to popular belief, is passing. For McGrady, the passing will always be there — he’s the best passing wing this league has ever seen, rivaled only by LeBron James. It was remarkable to see that even in his regressed state, he could still effectively create plays for his teammates. Just absolutely remarkable. He can hold the ball at the key, in stationary position, and blindly hit cutters without needing to actually beat his man off the dribble. He also never makes mistakes.”
There are dozens of low points in the history of McGrady’s relationship with the Rockets. One that seems to have stuck in many people’s memory was the Jan. 2, 2009 game in Toronto. I just watched much of it, and it’s remarkable — with the exception of one drive to the hoop, McGrady really didn’t do one vigorous thing all game. It’s like he was made of jello. He sashayed through the night. The hard things about hoops — the boxing out, the sprinting, the cutting, the rebounding (and, you know, the caring) — he simply was not doing. Instead, he’d trail his teammates up the court and then hoist a 3 as soon as they passed it to him. The psychic toll on the rest of the roster must be incalculable. The Rockets had just 49 points as a team at the end of the third quarter. McGrady had made two of his nine shots, and let the Raptors do whatever they wanted when they had the ball. He did not get back into the game. A little more than a month later, he was done for the season.
Let’s briefly address the above. First, TMac did actually drive to the basket a few times. However, he didn’t have his old explosiveness to either dunk the ball or blow past his defender. What he did have though is his length. During the game they referred to him variously as 6’8″ or 6’9″. Regardless, playing shooting guard he will almost always tower over his defender and be able to get his shot off either above his man, or reaching out with his long arms so that he can lay it in just in front of them (another person who’s great at using his length on drives is Lamar Odom. It looks like Odom’s just side by side with his man, but then his go-go-gadget arms stretch out and he flips it in two miles in front of his man).
TMac’s explosiveness does indeed seem to be gone. That doesn’t mean his game will be ineffective, as he seems to have reinvented it in the style of a Paul Pierce or Brandon Roy. Neither of them are particularly fast, and often they actually seem to be moving in slow motion, but they always are in control, see everything, and the game seems to move in slow motion for them so that like if a defender steps into the lane to draw a defender, they just step around him rather than the younger guys who’ll just charge straight into the guy. However the key thing that makes both Pierce & Roy so deadly is that they have nice outside shots. McGrady was hitting everything from outside (even banking in a shot), but he has never been known as an outside shooter. Simply put: he won’t be able to shoot at that level for most games. Which then causes his defenders to sag off him more. Which then makes him more open for the jumpers. Which then encourages him to shoot them more.
Now I doubt he’ll just jack up shots with impunity like he did at previous stops when he was clearly not only The Man, but also The Future of the team. As a result, his already good passing could step up another level if he’s more inclined to help others than to just score (which I think he will be). Lastly, in reference to the Canadian Massacre, even though he played unbelievably, there was a lackluster feel to much of his appearance. He definitely didn’t have that hustle that the two other new boys brought. And that was with him caring a bunch about the game since it was his first one in like five years. Yet there are only 28 games remaining in the season, so he should be able to remain focused and unselfish as we close out the year.
And maybe that means he will be this good every night…
Tags: Allen Iverson Brandon Roy Carmelo Anthony Chris Duhon Danilo Gallinari David Lee Dwayne Wade Eddie House Jared Jeffries Kevin Durant Kobe Bryant Lamar Odom LeBron James Madison Square Garden Michael Jordan Mike D'Antoni MVP Nate Robinson Oklahoma Thunder Paul Pierce Russell Westbrook Sergio Rodriguez Shaquille O'Neal Spanish Chocolate Toronto Raptors Tracy McGrady TrueHoop