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Sunday, March 09, 2008

T-Mac Attack: McGrady Scores 41, Lifts Rockets Over Hornets

Tracy McGrady played all 48 minutes and scored 41 points on Sunday as the Houston Rockets defeated the New Orleans Hornets 106-96, running their winning streak to 18 games. That is the longest winning streak in the NBA this season and tied for the fourth longest single-season winning streak in NBA history (the '70 Knicks, '82 Celtics and '96 Bulls also won 18 straight games). If the Rockets beat New Jersey on Monday then they will tie the '00 Lakers and trail only the '71 Bucks (20 games) and the '72 Lakers (33 games); although most press reports do not mention this, the NBA Guide lists one other winning streak among the all-time leaders: the Washington Capitols won 20 straight games in 1948, spanning the final five games of the 1947-48 season and the first 15 games of the 1948-49 season. The Capitols were coached by none other than Red Auerbach, who guided them to the 1949 Finals, where they lost in six games to Minneapolis. The '70 Knicks, '71 Bucks, '72 Lakers, '96 Bulls and '00 Lakers all won championships, while the '82 Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the 76ers.

McGrady shot 17-27 from the field and he had nine assists, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Rafer Alston (20 points) and Shane Battier (10 points) were the only other Rockets who reached double figures but four players scored between six and nine points. Chris Paul led New Orleans with 37 points and 11 assists, many of which came on gorgeous lob passes that Tyson Chandler (15 points, 16 rebounds) converted into slam dunks. Paul really played a splendid game, showcasing his full array of skills: the quickness that enables him to get steals on defense and blow by defenders on offense, tremendous ballhandling, a deft shooting touch and the ability to accurately deliver a wide range of passes even against defensive pressure. That said, in general I still favor the skilled bigger perimeter players (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, McGrady when healthy) over the skilled smaller perimeter players (Paul, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson); that extra size enables the bigger player to cover more ground both offensively and defensively and does not leave him exposed to as many mismatches in pick and roll situations.

Both teams were missing an injured All-Star big man: Houston's Yao Ming is of course out for the rest of the season, while New Orleans' David West missed his third game in a row due to a sprained ankle. Houston's rookie forward Carl Landry, who had scored in double figures in five straight games, missed the game due to a knee injury.

How have the Rockets been able to keep their streak going even after Yao's injury? It is important to realize that prior to this season the Rockets were just 11-39 in games that McGrady missed but 126-70 when he played; prorating those numbers over an 82 game schedule, that means that with McGrady the Rockets played like a legitimate title contender (a pace better than 50 wins per season) while without him they played like a lottery team. In general, the Rockets' record has been much more sensitive to McGrady's absence than Yao's absence. Last season the Rockets did very well even when Yao missed 34 games. McGrady is capable of playing at or close to the level that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James operate at regularly but in recent years he has not been able to sustain that level of performance for an extended period of time, largely due to recurring injuries. As I wrote earlier this season, "In plain English, with McGrady the Rockets are an elite team and without him they are one of the worst teams in the league. McGrady is rarely mentioned as a top five MVP candidate but if winning is the ultimate 'value' one could make a case that McGrady is the most 'valuable' player because his presence or absence has such a direct, immediate impact on whether or not his team wins. The flip side of this, the reason that McGrady is not often thought of as an MVP, is that McGrady has never taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. However, if you look at each one of the teams that McGrady has carried to the playoffs--and 'carried' is not too strong of a word for it, as the above numbers show--none of them were better or deeper than their opponents. Even last year's Rockets team, which lost a game seven at home to Utah, was not a better squad from top to bottom than the Jazz; McGrady--with help from Yao Ming--took a team with no point guard and a suspect bench much farther than it otherwise would have gone."

Since that time, injuries hobbled McGrady, which led to Yao assuming a dominant position on the team, causing many people to assume that Yao's injury would be a fatal blow to the Rockets. What we are seeing now is a healthy McGrady once again playing at an MVP level, though of course he cannot be a serious contender for the award in light of the fact that Bryant and James have played at an even higher level for the entire season. I respect the accumulated knowledge and experience of former players--particularly the all-time greats--but TNT's Charles Barkley is simply wrong when he says that McGrady does not make his teammates better. As I have explained before, I am not fond of the phrase "making your teammates better," preferring to discuss how "great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well."

For example, McGrady is a very difficult one on one matchup for most players in the NBA and when he draws double teams that creates wide open shots for spot up shooters. McGrady does not make Alston or Battier better but he puts them in position to do what they do well. McGrady is a great scorer and a willing/skilled passer and that combination is deadly. Early in the game, he drove strongly to the hoop and scored a layup. Color commentator Clyde Drexler noted, "When he does that he is impossible to guard because he passes the ball so well." In other words, the threat of a pass that would lead to an easy dunk by a cutter makes it difficult to defend McGrady when he gets a step on his man and drives to the hoop; this is also true of Bryant and James.

McGrady is 6-8 and that provides another advantage that he shares with Bryant and James (and Magic Johnson): the ability to see right over the defense. On several occasions, Chuck Hayes came up like he was going to set a screen for McGrady only to "slip" the screen at the last second and dive to the hoop; both defenders trapped McGrady but that kind of trap is not effective because McGrady can see right over it and make an easy (for him) pass. As Drexler said of McGrady as he put on a scoring and passing clinic during the fourth quarter, "When he's healthy, he's one of the premier players in the game today."

In addition to McGrady's brilliance, the Rockets have an excellent rotation of big men who understand their roles and perform them well. The ageless Dikembe Mutombo provided rebounding and defense in his 18:29 of action and for the rest of the game the Rockets successfully used a smaller lineup with Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Steve Novak serving as the "bigs." Scola has all-around skills, though on this night he was mainly a banger (eight rebounds in 24:51), Hayes is a banger (nine rebounds in 29:31) who also dives well to the hoop on pick and rolls (a la Cleveland's Anderson Varejao) and Novak is a spot up shooter who spreads the court (eight points in 9:17).

The Rockets have moved up to third in the Western Conference standings. Despite their impressive winning streak, it is difficult to believe that they can go very far in the postseason, particularly considering that McGrady and Yao together did not lead Houston out of the first round last year. Keep in mind that both Dallas and Phoenix posted 17 game winning streaks last season but that neither team even made it to the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Sunday, March 09, 2008 10:55:00 AM, Anonymous Chris Iafolla said...

Who would’ve figured that you lose a guy that goes for 22 points and 10 boards on a nightly basis and actually get better? But as so often happens, the Rockets learned how to play as a team after the loss of Yao Ming.

 
At Sunday, March 09, 2008 3:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

As I noted in the post, the Rockets have had some success in recent seasons playing with T-Mac and without Yao. Rather than saying that they "learned how to play as a team" I would say that they have smoothly adjusted to playing with a dominant perimeter player as opposed to playing in a two star system that featured a dominant post player and a dominant perimeter player. The Cavs made it to the Finals last year with a dominant perimeter player, a rotation of bigs who defended and rebounded and some guys who could bury perimeter shots but it will be a much tougher haul for Houston in this year's stacked West. Plus, T-Mac has proven to be much less durable than LeBron has been thus far in his young career.

 
At Monday, March 10, 2008 11:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

they had a easy schedule this is a illusion and t mac doesnt belong in the same sentence with lebron james he is no james or kobe for that matter how many rings or finals apperances does he have? tracy mcgrady is a player like carmelo anthony they get 25 5 and 5 and lose in the first round and doesnt make teamates better up 2-0 in 05 lost 4-3 up 2-0 last year lost 4-3 up 3-1 03 playoffs lost 4-3 he had a better team all 3 times and lost all three barkley was absouloutey right he is a great indivdual player but he is not a guy who elevates the players around him, he is able to operate at the level of james and bryant are you kidding me he is not able to operate at that level at all david come on james is the best kobe right there with him they are on another planet from t mac he was at one time better than kobe that was in orlando days kobe is miles ahead now and definetel james is as well.

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 11:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I made a subtle but important distinction in the post. I said that T-Mac can play at the level that Kobe and LeBron do but that T-Mac does not play at that level all the time because of injuries or other factors. At his best, T-Mac is as good as Kobe and LeBron, but Kobe and LeBron do it every night. T-Mac can get 60 points or 10+ assists and he can even be a lockdown defender. He is a marvelously talented player and he is the big reason that the Rockets have kept the streak going. When you win 19 in a row that is nearly a fourth of the season; of course they beat some bad teams but they beat some good teams too. This streak is one of the longest ever and I'm sure that the other teams that had streaks beat some weak teams along the way. Those other teams also had multiple All-Stars, which the Rockets have not had since Yao got hurt--and, technically, T-Mac is not an All-Star (he did not make the team this year).

Just because you are up in the series does not prove that you have the better team (think back to the 2006 Lakers versus the Suns). Houston lost a game seven at home last year, which obviously is not good, but that Utah team proved to be better than its record. Anyway, if you look at the other times that T-Mac's teams lost in the playoffs he clearly had the inferior team and the only reason his team was even competitive is because he was dropping 30 on a nightly basis, unlike Melo, who annually disappears in the playoffs. If you take health and age out of the equation and go strictly by skills, I'd easily take T-Mac over Melo; T-Mac has more shooting range, is a much better passer and is a much better defender. Melo gets the edge in free throw shooting and post up skills.

 

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