In a manner hardly befitting representatives of the red-meat-eating red state of Texas, the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets have in recent seasons endured numerous assaults on their manhood. The soft-centered Mavs were known for being content to launch long-distance jumpers and lay out the welcome mat for opponents to convert uncontested layups. And after the Rockets (Rockettes?) got off to a mediocre start this season, their toughest guy seemed to be that 5'9" scrapper on the sidelines, coach Jeff Van Gundy, famous for practically gnawing on the ankle of Alonzo Mourning during a playoff scrum years ago.
The Lone Star State matchup in the first round of this year's Western Conference playoffs, though, promised to showcase more tenacious Texas types. Dallas had been hardened by an emphasis on interior defense and the elevation to head coach of in-your-face throwback Avery Johnson. Houston got nastier by adding a few scrap-iron role players to complement placid superstars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
By stealing Games 1 and 2 in Dallas, a 98--86 win last Saturday and a 113--111 victory on Monday night, the Rockets cut the heart out of the Mavs, around whom whispers of "title contender" could be heard, albeit prematurely. Though the Mavs' 58-win season (including victories in their final nine games) was a six-game improvement over last year, their lack of steady point guard play (paging Steve Nash!), the disappearing act performed by Michael Finley (five points in Game 1, 10 in Game 2) and the inability of Dirk Nowitzki to match his superstar counterpart McGrady (T-Mac outscored him 62--47 in the two games) has seemingly fated the Mavs and their impatient owner, Mark Cuban, to another off-season of fiddling with the team's personnel.
Though they arrived more quietly than Dallas, the Rockets came into the series with their own head of steam, buoyed by seven straight wins to end the season and fortified by a supporting cast that has McGrady smiling. In the ongoing game of completing the phrase The Best Player Never to Have ..., McGrady is at the moment The Best Player Never to Have Taken a Team Past the First Round. He almost did it two years ago in Orlando, when his Magic had the Detroit Pistons down 3--1. Then he opened his mouth and said, essentially, that the series was over. The Pistons used his words as bulletin-board material and won three straight. "Hey, I was young then," says McGrady, now 25 and in his eighth year in the league. "I didn't know any better."
What he knows now is that with a strong performance in the postseason, he can at last become a player identified by what he is (a singular talent) rather than by what he is not (a stone-cold assassin, a tough guy). It wasn't just that he outdueled Nowitzki in Game 1, it was the way he did it. McGrady flew around the court; Nowitzki seemed to be playing in snowshoes. When McGrady held the ball, it was to locate open teammates and zip them the ball (he had six assists to go with 34 points); when Nowitzki held it, he allowed double teams to come (he had six turnovers and only five field goals) and killed the Mavs' rhythm.
Furthermore, before the game the 6'8" McGrady went to Van Gundy and--oh, how the coach loves this--asked to help out on defending Nowitzki, a power forward who has four inches on him. Van Gundy split the assignment between surprise starter Ryan Bowen, who checked Nowitzki with some good old-fashioned banging, and McGrady, who mixed it up, sometimes even fronting Nowitzki. On one of the rare occasions that Nowitzki was guarding him, T-Mac went by so fast on the baseline that the Mavericks forward was just turning around when McGrady was flushing a lefthanded dunk.
Indeed, there is no player quite like McGrady, who is listed as a small forward but who is, in reality, a blend of shooting guard (he comes off picks for jumpers as well as anyone in the league) and point guard (the offense usually runs through him). Van Gundy, who finds flaws in a rainbow, gloomily ticked off the reasons the Rockets should have lost Game 1 (they attempted 22 fewer free throws than the Mavs, were outrebounded 44--39, etc.) and boiled the outcome down to this: "I'm not sure we win if Tracy doesn't hit three home runs that were, like, miraculous." One of T-Mac's treys was, like, otherworldly. With the shot clock running down during a third-quarter possession, he launched an outlandish fallaway jumper from about 25 feet and began backpedaling downcourt even before it went in.
Yet the mention of T-Mac always comes with an asterisk designating a dearth of toughness. "Toughness is one of those nebulous words," says Van Gundy. "Toughness is being able to concentrate enough to carry out a game plan. Toughness is the ability to execute a play under duress, having a poise about you, making shots late in the game. That's mental toughness, and Tracy has that. Taking on guys, beating a double team by yourself. Guarding tough players, like Nowitzki. That's physical toughness, and Tracy has that, too. To say he doesn't have toughness is ridiculous."
To say that the season in Houston has been an utter T-Mac lovefest, however, also would be ridiculous. Combine equal parts McGrady, the laid-back offensive talent, and Yao, the good-natured 7'6" soul still learning the game, and add Van Gundy, the intense and impatient defensive coach, and you hardly have a recipe for harmony.
"In the beginning of the year," says veteran guard Bob Sura, who had signed on as a free agent before the season, "our locker room was a bad mix." Guard Jon Barry, who began the season with the lowly Hawks, noticed the lack of spark during Houston's 88--84 loss in Atlanta on Nov. 16. "The Rockets were dead," said Barry. "No energy. It seemed like they didn't get along too well and played with no real passion. They lollygagged around and thought everybody would bow down to them."
As Van Gundy acknowledges, "You need to put high-energy guys around Tracy and Yao because their nature is to be more laid-back and sleepy."
Sleepy. Not a word normally associated with great players. Perhaps the Mandarin term, as provided by Yao's translator, Colin Pine, would fit: pingjing. It means "serene" and applies to both McGrady and Yao.
So Houston general manager Carroll Dawson, an underrated exec, went looking for some true grit, eventually trading for Barry, David Wesley and Mike James, veteran guards who have been on a total of 17 NBA teams. Each brings a slightly different aspect of toughness. Barry is a full-bore full-court runner but also heady in the half-court; Wesley is a tenacious defender; and James, who had 16 points in the opener, is a confident offensive creator. "Hey, if I'm open, I'm going to shoot it," says James, "even with T-Mac out there." The fourth member of the Backbone Backcourt Boys, Sura, is one of the best small-man rebounders in the NBA. All of them can shoot the three, a bonus when McGrady and Yao draw so much double-team attention.
Throw in the solid contributions of Bowen (who doesn't need the ball and wouldn't get it if he did) and Yao's backup, 107-year-old Dikembe Mutombo (who has lately taken to eating dinner with Yao on the road and instructing him on the fundamentals of keeping his elbows up), and you've got the kind of players that McGrady has always wanted around him.
Perhaps inspired by their spirit, McGrady has begun to speak up passionately. He is constantly imploring Yao (who led all scorers with 33 points in Game 2) to take it hard to the rim and dunk; during Game 1, after the big center collected his fifth foul, McGrady was on him to "Move your feet!" Says Barry, "On this team nobody lets anybody get away with anything."
Yao is still not likely to get in anyone's face. But for now, as the Mavs will attest, the Rockets certainly have a team with more zing than pingjing.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
WE HAVE IGNITION
Van Gundy and the other Rockets have lit a fire under the easygoing Yao (11) and McGrady.
Mutombo (55) and the Mavs' Jerry Stackhouse gave each other no quarter.