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A Thursday for the books


By Adam Hoff


Every once in a while, the NBA gives you something terrific, right out of the blue.  If you are a diehard fan like me, those moments happen more frequently than for the masses.  But on the odd night, even the casual fan has reason to tune into SportsCenter for NBA highlights.  And no, Iím not talking about Ron Artest charging into the stands or Kobe alienating every person in the known universe.  Iím talking about real accomplishments worth taking note of.  


Need a taste of what Iím talking about?  The easiest way to think of a few examples is to pull up some of my other randomly inspired NBA columns from the past few years.  Thereís a column about AI going for 55 in the first round of the playoffs.  A column about seven different players hitting for over 40 in mid-February of 2003.  LeBronís subtly mind-blowing debut is in there.  You get the idea.  Tonight, weíve got another entry: one of those regular season games that offers up something so good that it requires a column on the spot.  I give you Rockets-Spurs.  Or should I say, the T-Mac Miracle. 


Before we get to what actually happened, itís important to note how unlikely it was that this game would stand out in any way, shape, or form.  For starters, the Rockets have sucked horribly this year and because they have a coach with absolutely no imagination or joy whatsoever, their games are painful to watch.  Yao and T-Mac should be a thrilling duo Ö instead, every televised Rockets game is a 75-71 affair that leaves me watching reruns of Boiling Point and the Real World, Philadelphia (two shows that are currently in a heated competition for ďworst show everĒ).  Plus, they were playing the Spurs, who are very good but also boring and plodding.  Needless to say, I was bracing myself for Yawn Fest 2004. 


Not only was the game shaping up to be a real bore, but it was also up against some terrific Thursday night TV.  If I told you that The O.C. would reach near perfection and that the second-to-last Apprentice came through with a strong showing, would you ever believe that the Rockets-Spurs would wind up being the best thing going?  No way. 


(Before we move on, let me just say a few things about The O.C.  They are taking things to the crazy next level.  The ďEvil Father-in-Law finally reveals that he had an affair that produced an illegitimate child, leading to the mom coming over to the Cohen residence and then running into the illegitimate daughter, who is now dating Ryan, the surrogate sonĒ angle was a true gem.  The various love triangles are genius.  The music remains top notch.  The actors are older than ever [I keep waiting for Summerís new boyfriend to leave Harbor High to go back to his PhD program].  The outfits have grown more bizarre.  Is there anything that this show canít do?  What a masterpiece.)


Anyway, back to T-Mac.  The final thing that made his virtuoso performance (yeah, I know, I probably need to get to the actual feat at some point) so good is that the Rockets were turning in another abysmal fourth quarter effort and were on their way to a big L, down 74-64 with 52 seconds to go.  First, note the score.  Disgusting.  Second, note the deficit.  There was no reason to assume that anything exciting was going to happen at all.  The best thing that could be said about the game up to that point is that Devon Brown was doing a nice job off the bench for the Spurs and that Duncan had seven blocked shots.  Seriously, thatís it. 


Then, T-Mac went absolutely crazy.  It all started innocently enough as Yao Ming dunked home a McGrady miss (as the Rockets' crowd showered them with boos) and Scott Padgett picked off a pass and threw it down to cut the lead to six.  Things really picked up when T-Mac hit a sick pull-up three with 33 seconds left to cut the deficit to five.  The Spurs answered with free throws to push it back to seven with 20 seconds left.  Game over Ö right?  Wrong.  The Rockets ran an inbounds play for McGrady which forced him way out beyond the arc and into a double team.  Somehow, he got Duncan in the air (eerily reminiscent of pretty much every play in the 2004 Olympics), drew contact and hit a wild double clutch three just before his feet hit the ground.  It was easily one of the most difficult shots Iíve ever seen made in an NBA game.  Tack on the free throw and youíve got a three-point game.  All of a sudden I was sitting on the edge of my seat thinking, ďThe Spurs suck at shooting free throws, this is going to get interesting.Ē


Sure enough, Duncan winds up with the ball, gets fouled, and has to go to the line with visions of Phoenix and Marbury-banked three pointers circa 2003 dancing through his head.  What happens?  He sinks them both to go to 12-14 on the night.  Talk about weird.  This is the very same guy that almost ruined my fantasy team last year by clanging half of his attempts from the charity stripe.  TNT went to timeout with the score 80-75.  15 seconds on the clock.  No timeouts for the Rockets. 


The T-Mac really started getting nuts, ala George Costanza (ďYou wanna get nuts?  Letís get nuts!Ē).  He brought the ball across the top of the key, stopped on a dime, and hit a twisting, fadeaway three while wearing Bruce Bowen as a blanket.  When there was no whistle, I figured it was all over.  No way could he make that.  Of course, he made it.  It might have been an even tougher shot than the four-point play.  Now the lead is down to two.  Next thing you know, the Spurs are kicking the ball away, T-Mac is scooping it up, and heís racing 1-on-3 the other way. 


Money.  A pull up three with 1.7 seconds left.  Could have taken it to the hoop to draw the foul or get to the basket.  Could have avoided the pressure (ala Jen from The Apprentice) and passed to an open teammate.  Nope.  Eschewing the lane to the basket, he trusted his scorching hot hand and pulled up for a difficult, contested 27-footer.  Nothing but the bottom.  He threw a massive celebratory right hook, remembered to play defense just in time to deter a Tony Parker counterattack, and then was mobbed my his teammates at center court. 


It was the kind of sequence that brings back memories of Reggie Miller tormenting the Knicks in the Garden.  The kind of flurry that gets lumped together into one long highlight and shown at #1 on Chris Bermanís plays of the week.  Most importantly, it was the kind of improbable performance that can turn a season around.  The Rockets have been the most disappointing team in the league.  They canít score, Yaoís regressing, Van Gundy is sucking T-Macís will to ball (Ďtill he falls), and the season pretty much seemed lost.  Then they host the Spurs, play without Jim Jackson, fall behind like usual Ö then pull out a miracle.  Itís the kind of thing that changes your mindset, changes your expectations, and changes that entire feel surrounding the team.

If the Rockets turn things around and get back into the playoff picture, they will have this game to thank.  The night T-Mac achieved the impossible.   


Other NBA Notes:


Iíve noticed that a lot of columnists do this Ö they write a story and then just tack on some extra thoughts.  Itís great.  Now I donít need to think of a stupid idea for my random thoughts; I can just toss them into a real column.  To quote those ridiculous Guinness commercials, ďBrilliant!Ē


  • The Sonics notch biggest wins of the season.  For all of Seattleís success this year, it still felt like a house of cards.  Even after going 4-1 on a big East Coast road trip.  Even after winning at Minnesota.  So when they went to San Antonio and Dallas and won on back-to-back nights Ö wow.  You still know that the skid is coming.  There will be a 4-9 stretch or a 5-13 slump at some point, but these Texas road trip solidifies the Sonics as a factor in the Northwest division.  They will be right there with Minnesota, battling for a top-three seed all the way to the wire.  Think of it this way Ö they probably need at least 52 wins to sniff the division title, and now they only need to go 35-27 to do that.  Seems reasonable.  As for the secret to their success, itís not one thing you can point to.  Part of it is the play of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis elevating themselves from #2 and #3 options to #1 and #2 type players.  Part of it is the toughness Danny Fortson has brought to the table.  You can chalk some of the success up to Luke Ridnourís development.  Credit the 40+ points they get off the bench.  There are a lot of good things happening here.  I still think they need to go get Shareef Abdur-Rahim for his low post scoring to truly be legit, but this is the best story of the year in success-starved Seattle. 


  • Do coaches have any idea what they are doing?  In Toronto weíve got Sam Mitchell acting like heís coaching a high school team and benching guys for getting technical fouls (technical fouls!).  He is so over the top that he almost forced Rafer Alston (in the first year of a big contract and the #7 rated player in fantasy basketball at the time) into retirement.  When a guy that is playing as well as any point guard in the league AND getting paid big dollars for the first time in his life starts thinking retirement, you know the coach is going overboard.  In Chicago, Scott Skiles is regularly running out a three-point guard lineup.  You read that right Ė itís not a three-guard lineup, itís three point guards.  Kirk Hinrich, Frank Williams, and the irreplaceable Chris Duhon all in the game at the same time.  He also has grown fond of the ďno skillĒ frontcourt of Antonio Davis, Othella Harrington, and Adrian Griffin.  Yikes!  Why does this guy insisting on maintaining the worldís largest doghouse?  The Bulls arenít good by any stretch of the imagination, but they shouldnít be this bad.  Not when you have a legit PG (Hinrich), two emerging scorers (Luol Deng and Ben Gordon), an energy/unintentional comedy guy (Andres Nocioni), a tenacious rebounder (Tyson Chandler) and a low post scorer (Curry).  Thatís six solid guys!  Why are players like Duhon and Griffin seeing the court?  What a joke.  Can we get some NBA coaches who arenít trying to be the next Bob Knight, please?


  • Fountain of Youth for Reggie?  Maybe Reggie Miller should break his hand every year.  Either that or play with a bunch of no-name replacements.  In his first two games back for the Pacers, Reggie went for 55 points with 8 threes on 63% shooting.  If you donít think this is news, then you are still living in the 1990ís, because thatís the last time Reggie had back-to-back games like that. 


  • T-Wolves Get an Eddie Edge.  A lot of people were picking the Wolves to win it all this year and I scoffed at them.  I figured Sprewell was pretty much worthless and that Cassell would be nothing but a distraction.  The weird thing is that Iíve been right on both counts, yet wrong about the Wolvesí chances.  The reason (other than KG playing at a higher level than ever)?  Eddie Griffin.  Captain Second Chance might finally be taking advantage of his opportunity.  Heís been coming off the bench for Minnesota and manning everything from the 2 to the 5 positions and allowing them to get their deadbeat centers off the flow.  Unlike super sub Troy Hudson, Griffin allows the Wolves to avoid their crappy big men because he is an incredible shot blocker.  A front line with KG and E-Griff is more than enough to man the paint.  Not only does his pure athleticism and length give them a boost, heís also proving to be a dangerous threat from three.  Outside of Dirk Nowitski, Shawn Marion, Donyell Marshall, and maybe Rasheed Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko, you just donít find shot blockers that can stretch defenses like Griffin does.  Over his past seven games, Griffin has 21 threes and 14 blocks to go with four double figure rebounding games Ö all while playing only 26 minutes per night.  And with KG around to keep him in line, Griffin should just keep getting better and better.  What a pickup.


Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of The Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached by email at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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