T-Mac Attack: McGrady Scores 41, Lifts Rockets Over HornetsTracy 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM