Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Most Interesting Guy in the Playoffs

Despite a fairly laconic regular season in which the NBA was completely trumped by college hoops, the playoffs present the possibility for real excitement. The Suns finally have their full arsenal and will try to win a title playing fast and loose. The Mavs are on a mission after the collapse in last year's Finals. The Spurs and Pistons are lurking as the annual "good but boring teams that nobody wants to see in June." The Bulls are trying to win the East without a low post scorer. LeBron and the Cavs look to redeem a tough year. D-Wade is playing hurt. And the West might feature the best 6-8 seeds in playoff history. A lot to get excited about.

However, I am most fascinated by one guy: Tracy McGrady. There are a lot of reasons for this. For starters, he's probably the most underrated and overlooked superstar in the NBA. This is somewhat understandable, considering his ongoing back troubles and lack of postseason success, but it is also perplexing. The lack of success in L.A. the last few seasons hasn't prevented an ongoing fascination with Kobe. LeBron doesn't suffer a press blackout when the Cavs have a mediocre season. I suppose it all stems from the "it feels great to make it to the second round" comment back in the 2003 Playoffs. Ever since that moment, T-Mac has been the media's favorite "he can't win the big one" whipping boy.

Another interesting element of the T-Mac story is how good he was this year while flying completely under the radar. His shooting percentages weren't anything to rave about, but he really blossomed as an all around player. He was routinely getting 8 and 9 assists a night down the stretch, saving his scoring for games the Rockets really needed it, and evolving into a really good defensive player. With his back feeling better, McGrady morphed from an inconsistent scorer into one of the most versatile players in the NBA. Yet because of the other storylines in the West, nobody seemed to notice.

Finally, McGrady fascinates me because I know he's just a big playoff series away from climbing back into the uber spotlight. I know this, because it very nearly happened once already. Two years ago his Rockets played a really weird series against the Mavs when the road teams won the first six games of the series before Dallas finally rolled to a home win in Game 7. Houston didn't have enough perimeter speed to get the job done that year, but it is also true that nobody quite realized at the time how good the Mavs were. They nearly beat Phoenix in the second round and then became a juggernaut last year. Meanwhile, Houston suffered a spate of injuries in 2005-06 and couldn't get it going. For all those reasons, people seem to have forgotten about McGrady's fantastic series. He was doing everything. Even Charles Barkley - who has always been hard on T-Mac - was raving about him. He was right there, about to summit the hoops world. (This was also the year that he he scored 13 points in 33 seconds to beat the Spurs - one of my favorite NBA moments of the decade.) But Houston wasn't quite good enough to get to the second round, then came the injuries, and everything else, and now T-Mac is buried. He doesn't even make most all-NBA second teams, which is downright crazy.

That is why I think he's the most interesting figure in the playoffs. With a convincing win over Utah in round one and an epic battle with the Mavs in the semis, the Rockets and McGrady could regain control of the spotlight, and I think the rest of the NBA might remember just how good this guy is. We will see his incredible ability to get to the rim and finish, the remarkable way he gets off any shot he wants (rivaled only by Kobe), and his fine-tuned passing and defensive skills. I expect a few triple-doubles, a game-winning shot or two, and at least seven Rockets victories. Then, finally, Tracy McGrady will get his due.

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