McGrady sheds timid image in climbing among top 10
Posted: Friday January 26, 2007 3:52PM; Updated: Sunday January 28, 2007 4:04PM
Whether you're reading a season preview in late October or listening to a Finals wrap-up in June, you'll often hear the clarion call of one of our favorite clichés: "[stupendous NBA star] plays the same every night, whether he's in the championship round, or going up against the Grizzlies on a Wednesday night in January."
Well, it's January, the Grizzlies haven't folded yet, and we're going to take a more focused look at the actual play being offered by the NBA's top 20 talents during the regular season's dog days.
Nowitzki was all set for a demotion here before righting himself with about 15 minutes left in Dallas' loss to Chicago on Thursday night. Matched up against a long and active Bulls defense that is in a virtual tie with Houston for the league's lead in overall defensive efficiency, he missed 15 of 22 shots -- with a couple of the makes coming off desperate 3-point heaves. But then Nowitzki started to get to the line and started making free throws (12 of 13) while putting the Bulls in the penalty and giving the Mavs a chance to win despite the Mavs' shooting (31.2 percent) woes. With 27.7 points, 10.7 boards and 3.3 assists a game over the last week, and Nowitzki stays on top. Barely.
The Heat have lost three of four -- its one win coming as Wade sat out with a bum ankle -- but we're not about to blame Wade for the slide, or the fact that Miami is on pace for 38 wins. Not when Antoine Walker shoots 13 of 33 in those three losses and actually raises his shooting percentage. Not when James Posey misses 11 of 14 shots. And not when Gary Payton plays 33 minutes in a game while offering zero points and two assists. That essentially leaves coach Ron Rothstein depending on superhuman performances from Wade (averaging 30.3 points, 7.7 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals and just three turnovers in almost 47 minutes a game) and a series of willing but limited Dudley Do-Rights (Udonis Haslem, Jason Kapono, Alonzo Mourning) contributing what they can. That's a 38-win team right there. Welcome back, Shaquille O'Neal.
This week, much of the sporting world developed a better understanding of what NBA diehards have known for years: Kevin McHale has frittered away the career of one of the best big men in basketball history. Dwane Casey's needless dismissal (coming because someone in the Wolves' front office believes this team is supposed to be better than Denver, Houston, Utah, or the Lakers) typified the Minnesota GM's history of delusion. Minnesota has dropped five straight, in large part because Garnett had to sit out a loss to Phoenix after making a half-hearted swing at Detroit's Antonio McDyess two nights before. After returning just in time to lose at Utah, Garnett missed recording double-figure rebounds in a Wednesday loss to Portland for just the fifth time this season. That doesn't sound like Casey was holding back KG too much, does it?
The Suns are full of wins these days, riding a 15-game winning streak for the second time this season, and Nash, as usual, has had a lot to do with it, averaging 19.5 points on 58.3 percent from the floor, 13.5 assists and committing just 2.8 turnovers over the last week. Equally important, Nash has this group pacing itself, gradually taking the measure of each opponent (as demonstrated in Wednesday's five-point win over New York) before pulling out the win.
Duncan hit for a season-high 37 points in a loss to Houston on Wednesday, but the Spurs are 7-6 in January, including a 2-6 record against playoff teams (with the two wins coming versus Denver and Washington). Before his explosion against Houston, Duncan hadn't been shooting the ball well (40 percent from the floor) in wins over lesser lights such as the Hornets, 76ers and Celtics, though his rebounding (12.5 a game) and shot-blocking (3.3) counts perked up this week.
It was a light week for Kobe Bean and his Lakers, and we're still trying to make sense of their loss in Oklahoma City last Saturday. Desmond Mason and Devin Brown are good defenders, but they played the lockdown games of their lives against Kobe, and he still managed 23 points, six boards and seven assists. It was one of the worst games of the season for Bryant, who rebounded on Monday in a win over Golden State with 42 points on just 22 shots. Two home contests (against Charlotte on Friday, San Antonio on Sunday) come next for the Lakers, who then hit the road for an eight-game road swing.
The general populace of this great nation tends to disappoint every so often (just check last, or any week's, Nielsen ratings; or the top 40 charts), but they came through in spades this week, sending Arenas to the All-Star Game as a starter. Choosing a man who makes a point of mentioning a gas-heated cooking unit (in a quivering falsetto, no less) every time he hits a jumper over a guy who did really well in a dunk contest seven years ago was an indisputable home run for the voters. It doesn't hurt that Arenas participates in 500-jumper workouts in empty gyms in the wee hours while the guard he beat out (Vince Carter) can barely be bothered to play aggressively for more than a quarter at a time.
There's something missing here. Wednesday night, with the 76ers in town, LeBron shoots 54 percent from the floor, scores 39 points with 10 rebounds in 53 minutes. But he's absolutely nowhere to be found down the stretch of regulation and overtime. Yes, those points in the first quarter help just as much as hypothetical scores in the clutch, but James' passive play (which was hardly in the face of a withering 76ers double-team) was unnerving, to say the least -- as is coach Mike Brown's continued insistence that defense is Cleveland's problem. Coach, you have a top-five defense, and one of the least imaginative offenses (despite that vaunted playbook) in the NBA. Offense wins championships, too.
The Clippers have won four straight to climb inside the playoff bracket, which is passable, though we expected much greater things from this team -- even in a brutally tough Western Conference. Brand's rebounding (6.3 a game) took a dive this week, but playing against defensive nonentities such as Memphis and Milwaukee, there weren't a lot of rebounds to be had. He averaged 25.7 points with 4.3 assists, while his long-armed defense (four steals, six blocks in three games) stood out.
Long chastised for appearing a little too timid on the court, McGrady appeared to have a burr up his saddle (please, please pardon that expression) in a win over the Spurs on Wednesday night. Shooting at will, coach Jeff Van Gundy's exacting play-calling be damned, T-Mac destroyed Bruce Bowen to the tune of 37 points on just 24 shots. Because the Rockets only played two games this week, McGrady's January per-game averages of 30 points, six rebounds and seven assists will have to suffice.