I think Tracy McGrady is going to have a big series for the Hawks. There are some empirical reasons I believe this but, really, it’s based on the subjective feeling I got from watching and talking to T-Mac these past couple weeks.
T-Mac is looking and acting more like T-Mac. By that obviously I don’t mean the guy who once posted a 30.3 PER for a season and averaged more than 30 points in four straight playoff appearances. But he’s reminding me of the guy from early in the season, the one who delivered those daggers in Miami and then beamed while facing a horde of reporters afterward and bragged about his “wet jumper.”
That’s the T-Mac the Hawks need, and I think they’ll get it. Yesterday a reporter prefaced a question by telling McGrady “you may not be the same player you were 10 years ago . . .” and T-Mac cut him off:
“It wasn’t that long ago!”
McGrady laughed and so did everyone else. His spirit is back and so are his legs. T-Mac is ready.
“Physically and mentally I feel better than I have all season long,” he said. “Feeling a lot more comfortable, getting consistent minutes, coach is putting the ball in my hands. Having confidence and feeling comfortable is the biggest thing.”
If T-Mac helps the Hawks in the playoffs, it will vindicate the manner in which Larry Drew has handled his sometimes-prickly former superstar.
McGrady’s minutes fluctuated and Drew’s public explanations didn’t always make sense. There were stretches when it looked as if McGrady wasn’t really into it. It was a chicken-egg thing with McGrady and Drew: Was T-Mac not engaged because he wasn’t getting consistent minutes, or was he not getting consistent minutes because he wasn’t engaged?
Drew has maintained that it was mostly about how McGrady felt, that he couldn’t give him consistent minutes because his body couldn’t handle it. To be sure, there were games where it was obvious it was true, and the fact that McGrady has more zip lately might be evidence that Drew was right to hold him back.
“He been playing well the last couple weeks,” Drew said. “It’s obvious he’s feeling good. For him, it’s always been about how he’s feeling physically. You can see he has more energy, more quickness, more speed. That’s big for us because he’s another guy who can do some things off the dribble. He came up to me the other day and told me he’s excited about the playoffs. Listing to him, you can tell he’s excited.”
There’s reason to think McGrady can help the Hawks. Even considering his fluctuating physical and mental condition, the final numbers show McGrady still is a good rebounder and passer who gets to the free-throw line can hold his own defensively even if his shooting stroke suffered.
Defensively, the Hawks have been nearly four points better per 100 possessions with T-Mac on the floor (with the caveat that all of the bench combinations have been good overall on defense). His Synergy defensive numbers are not good but his opposing PER are solid, especially at small forward. At the very least, McGrady hasn’t hurt the Hawks defensively.
The Hawks haven’t been as good offensively with McGrady on the floor: a bit more than four points worse per 100 possessions, according to BasketballValue. But look a bit closer and you’ll see most of that damage came with T-Mac on the floor alongside Vladimir Radmanovic and Zaza Pachulia.
Sub those two for Marvin Williams and Ivan Johnson, which figures to happen regularly in this series, and it’s a much better offensive lineup. Put T-Mac out there with Jeff Teague, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith and both the offensive and defensive numbers look good.
McGrady’s patient, probing offensive style figures to be valuable against Boston’s disciplined, relentless defense.
“I’m still able to facilitate, still able to be a scorer,” McGrady said. “We are so deep. My play-making, my ability to get the ball to the guys in the right spot and make the game a lot easier for them–I enjoy that.”
If T-Mac has it going it could cause problems for the Celtics. They have three quality wing defenders in Paul Pierce, Mickael Pietrus and Marquis Daniels but it’s likely only two of those players will be on the court at any one time.
When the Hawks move the ball it can be difficult for opponents to deal with both Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, who each can command a double. Add T-Mac to the worries and the Celtics could be scrambling.
It’s been four years since McGrady appeared in the playoffs. He’s always been knocked for not being able to get his teams past the first round in seven chances but now he’s not doing the heavy lifting. He doesn’t have to be T-Mac, just McGrady, and he’s cool with that.
“At some point, you just have to accept what comes your way,” he said. “That’s what I realized. I had a good run being that guy. It’s unfortunate I had to battle some injuries that hindered my ability to be who I am.”
It wasn’t always clear this season if McGrady could move past being T-Mac (both physically and mentally). I think what got overlooked a bit is this is the first time in 15 years that McGrady has never started a game (he came off the bench for 33 of 72 games in Detroit last season). That has to be a tough thing for a guy who was once so good and is still so prideful, especially when he thought his coach was implying that he had nothing left.
But now it’s the playoffs and McGrady sounds as if he knows what the Hawks need from him, he’s embraced it, and he’s having fun again:
I’m excited about being a valuable part of this ball club. Yeah, I’m not that guy averaged 28, 29 points in the playoffs. But I’m still a valuable piece that comes off this bench. Considering it’s my first year ever coming off the bench, it’s a very uncomfortable role that I just wasn’t familiar with and didn’t really know how to approach it mentally. When you are playing inconsistent minutes . . . I’m not just built that way. That’s why I think over the last couple weeks I’ve been more comfortable is because my minutes have been consistent. That’s what it was all about. All I wanted was to have consistent minutes is to get me comfortable on the basketball games.
I’m not—and this is not a diss by any means to nobody—I’m not a guy like a Jason Terry or a James Harden that can come off the bench and right away and get to scoring. I read the game. I feel the game. I get guys involved, then that’s how I get myself going. I think some people look at that as not being aggressive or not being valuable. But I see the game, I feel the game, and it’s far from the truth. Just being able to know the flow of the game, I play with guys that can score, and can pass to guys spread around the perimeter that can shoot the ball. It’s all about getting those guys going and then I pick my spots when it’s time for me to score. I’m not that guy who is taking 15 to 20 shots.
Then McGrady paused and flashed that familiar, cocky grin/smirk.
“But if I was doing that, if I had the opportunity, then, dammit, I still could score. No doubt about that. I ain’t never letting that go.”
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat