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Thursday, January 25, 2007

With T-Mac Back, Rockets Are Rolling Even Without Yao

Careful observation has revealed the reason that Tracy McGrady frequently suffers from back spasms: he is carrying the entire Rockets' franchise on his back. Last year, when T-Mac was out of the lineup the Rockets struggled to win a game, even with Yao Ming putting up dominant numbers; this year, Yao Ming was playing the best basketball of his career before he was sidelined with a broken bone behind his knee, but it has become clear that Houston lives and dies based not on what Yao does but based on T-Mac's mere presence on the court. The Rockets defeated the Spurs 90-85 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moving to 10-5 since Yao's injury. McGrady led the way with 37 points and eight rebounds, shooting 14-24 from the field. That performance raised his scoring average in January to exactly 30 ppg and the Rockets are 7-3 in those games (their other loss in January came last week versus the Suns when T-Mac's balky back kept him out of the lineup). Yes, the ageless Dikembe Mutombo has filled in admirably for Yao on the boards and at the defensive end of the court but the difference for the Rockets--last year and this year--is McGrady. Last year I discussed the T-Mac effect in a March article about MVP candidates:

Some kind of award should be invented for what Tracy McGrady has done this season. His statistics are down from their usual levels and he has missed a ton of games, but if we define “value” purely by how a player affects wins and losses, Tracy McGrady might win the MVP in a landslide.

His Houston Rockets are 27-20 with him in the lineup and 3-20 when he doesn’t play. In other words, with McGrady the Rockets look like a solid playoff team and without him they resemble the woeful 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers from 1972-73 -- despite having an All-Star center in Yao Ming. Has one player ever had that dramatic of an impact on his team’s record?

Seriously, if winning and "making one's teammates better" (the cliche applied endlessly to Steve Nash, as if Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion are not pretty good on their own) are the prerequisites for MVP consideration, how can T-Mac not be in the MVP discussion this season? His team depends on his presence and performance at least as much as any other team in the league depends on one single player. McGrady has been healthy and productive enough to lead Houston to one of the top six records in the NBA despite the extended absence of Yao, who was a viable MVP candidate himself before his injury.

When his back is not acting up, there are few players in the league who can score as smoothly and effortlessly as McGrady does. As Jon Barry put it during ESPN's Rockets-Spurs telecast, "Probably the best 'toughest shot' maker in the league...Tracy McGrady can take any shot he wants at any time and it is a quality shot; it might not look like it at the time, but it is." McGrady produced 24 of his 37 points in the second half as the Rockets outscored the Spurs 54-48. He also tied with Mutombo for the team lead in rebounds, keeping the Spurs' edge on the glass to 40-38 despite Duncan's 10 boards.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM



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