SAN ANTONIO — Pardon Tracy McGrady if he sometimes forgets to use “we’’ when talking about the San Antonio Spurs.
“Give San Antonio some credit of defending (LeBron James),’’ McGrady said Wednesday as if he were talking about some team in the league other than his own.
But McGrady actually is a member of the Spurs. The 16-year veteran signed with them as a free agent April 16 and now sits at the end of the bench as he tries to cap his NBA career with a first championship ring.
McGrady has played just 15 mop-up minutes in the first three games of the NBA Finals, but he can offer a unique perspective on how the Spurs are defending James. McGrady once was a high-scoring small forward himself who was frustrated at times by San Antonio’s defense.
OK, McGrady did have the legendary 2004-05 game against the Spurs when he scored 13 points in the final 35 seconds of a dramatic 81-80 win while with Houston. But he also had outings against them such as in 2003-04, when he won his second of two NBA scoring titles with Orlando. In two games that season with San Antonio, he shot an atrocious 15 of 48, including 1 of 13 from 3-point range.
Now, McGrady, 34, is watching with interest as the Spurs are having success slowing down the high-scoring James in the Finals. James is averaging 16.7 points, about 10 below his regular-season number, while shooting 38.9 percent as his Miami Heat trail 2-1 entering Thursday’s Game 4 at the AT&T Center.
“We’re doing a hell of job,’’ McGrady said after remembering he indeed now is a member of the Spurs. “We’ve got a guy (Kawhi Leonard) on him and when he drives, we got our big guys coming and just compacting the lane, keeping him off the free-throw line. When you’re not getting to the free-throw line and hitting free throws and you’re not getting layups, then the only thing left is for you to take jumpers. Then you’re not in a rhythm.’’
James indeed said Wednesday some of his struggles are “me being out of rhythm.’’ That certainly looked to be the case when he shot just 7 of 21 for 15 points in Tuesday’s 113-77 loss in Game 3. He failed to get to the foul line for the first time in a game since Dec. 2, 2009 when he was with Cleveland.
“It’s not like he’s a shooter like (Heat swingman) Mike Miller, who can just come off the bench and just fire up threes,’’ McGrady said about James. “He’s just not that type of player. He has to get in rhythm. … Once you start feeling confident, then you start shooting the ball.’’
But the Spurs aren’t letting him get that confidence by sending numerous bodies at James. And when he passes off, his teammates often aren’t making shots.
“He’s not getting any easy layups,’’ McGrady said. “Six free throws in this series. Game 3, only six free throws (attempted in the series). He’s a tough guy to defend but I think overall we’ve been doing a great job of just keeping him off the free-throw line and not allowing him to feel comfortable.’’
When James was a one-man gang for the Cavaliers, the Spurs harassed him in a 2007 Finals sweep to the tune of a 22.0 scoring average and 35.6-percent shooting. James, though, said before these Finals he’s a much better player now and has better teammates.
The part about better teammates has been less evident so far than anticipated. Guard Dwyane Wade, a nine-time All-Star, is fighting through a painful bone bruise on his right knee that McGrady said is affecting his confidence. And center Chris Bosh, an eight-time All-Star, has continued to be inconsistent in the postseason.
With his teammates struggling, James said after a key Game 5 win over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals he “just went back to my Cleveland days.’’ But McGrady believes that sort of scenario might not cut it against the Spurs.
“It’s the Finals, man,’’ said McGrady, a seven-time All-Star with a career scoring average of 19.6. “Things are tough. I know he’s a great player but one great player is not going to beat a great team, not on this level. It’s just not going to happen. It’s not just LeBron, other guys are struggling on that team. But because he’s the MVP, everybody wants to point the finger at (James). The guy is doing everything he friggin can.’’
McGrady knows a lot about that. Throughout his career, he had a number of high-scoring seasons without much of a supporting cast. But it didn’t translate into postseason success.
McGrady never played on the winning side in a playoff series until San Antonio beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep in April. McGrady played a grand total of five minutes in the series, going scoreless.
But McGrady, who probably will retire after this season, is at peace with his role on the Spurs. He admitted there was some apprehension, but then he talked it over with some teammates.
“I used to be one of those players that always thought if you’re on a team and you really don’t contribute (it isn’t the same),’’ McGrady told FOX Sports Florida. “I asked this question to my teammates: ‘If we win the championship, should I feel like I deserve it?’ They’re like, ‘Hell, yeah, what you’ve been doing in your career, of course.’ I’m here for a reason. I don’t know how it happened but it happened. I’m embracing it, and it’s great to be in this position.’’
If the Spurs do win the Finals, McGrady said his tombstone eventually will have something else engraved on it alongside two-time scoring champion.
“I’ll have NBA champion written on it,’’ he said.
If McGrady accomplishes that, it likely would be a lot more natural saying “we’’ when talking about the Spurs.