The Burden of Being Tracy McGradyTracy McGrady is one of the most underrated players in the NBA--and that does not figure to change after his Houston Rockets are eliminated by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, which seems almost certain to happen after Houston lost to Utah at home to fall behind 2-0 in their first round best of seven series. "I tried to do everything I could to get us going, energy-wise, execution-wise, rebounding and making them (his teammates) better. But come the fourth quarter, I didn't have enough (left). I had no legs. I was on empty," McGrady said after the 90-84 game two defeat. McGrady finished with 23 points, 13 assists, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, leading his team in every one of those categories in a performance reminiscent of the MVP level that Scottie Pippen played at after Michael Jordan retired for the first time. Unfortunately, the only statistic that a lot of people will look at is the fact that McGrady scored just one point in the fourth quarter.
"It's not their defense wearing him down, it's that he has to do so much for us. Look what he did tonight: 13 rebounds, nine assists. He carried us. That's going to wear you down after a while, especially against a physical team like this. They're going to keep coming at him," Houston Coach Rick Adelman added.
McGrady is going into gun battles with what Kobe Bryant would call "butter knives." McGrady's All-Star center Yao Ming is out for the season with a broken foot and his point guard Rafer Alston is also sidelined by injury. McGrady's Rockets are facing a Utah team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, beating a Houston team that was at full strength along the way.
I have often cited Bill Russell's dictum that what is most important is not how many points you score but when you score them, so how can I defend McGrady after he scored just one point in the fourth quarter of game two and no points in the fourth quarter of game one? McGrady has a skill set that is similar to Kobe Bryant's and LeBron James'. No, T-Mac is not at their level: he does not play at the highest of high levels consistently enough and he is not durable enough. Still, his gifts as a player are not fully appreciated by most fans (and many "experts"). His former coach Jeff Van Gundy insists that McGrady is perhaps the best passer in the NBA, a player whose size and court vision enable him to do special things with the basketball. Even though McGrady has very famously never won a playoff series it is undeniable that he steps up his game big time in the postseason: entering this year's playoffs, McGrady's career postseason averages were 28.8 ppg (fourth all-time behind Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Jerry West), 6.6 rpg and 6.1 apg, well above his career regular season averages (22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.7 apg). His field goal percentage in the playoffs (.431) was virtually the same as his regular season field goal percentage (.437) despite the higher level of competition that one encounters in postseason play; McGrady's free throw percentage is also better in the postseason (.781 entering this season compared to a .747 career number in the regular season). McGrady has an 0-3 career record in seventh games but check out his numbers in those contests: 25.7 ppg, 8.7 apg, 5.7 rpg, .387 field goal percentage, .762 free throw percentage. The field goal percentage is obviously not great but that reflects how defenses are able to load up on him because he has never had teammates around him who will make defenses pay by hitting open shots after McGrady is double teamed.
McGrady's subpar performances in the past two defeats and his losses in previous playoff series stem not from a shortcoming in his game but rather from the fact that he simply does not have enough help around him. If he clearly had the better team (or even an equal team) to the squads that have beaten him and he still came up short in the fourth quarter then that would be on him--but if the Rockets rest him early in these games to keep him fresh then they will be trailing by huge margins in the fourth quarter. This is exactly the same problem that Bryant faced the past three seasons. Until McGrady has a better team around him he will carry the burden of being blamed for not advancing past the first round of the playoffs even though he has done everything in his power to lift his team. There is a bitter irony in the fact that McGrady carried the Rockets just far enough to get blamed for losing in the first round but that if he had not played so well then the Rockets would not even be in the playoffs in the first place.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:23 PM