NBA

MONROE notes: Magic makeover paying off

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 
Break up the (new) ! Heading into their Friday night game against the , the hadn't lost since getting rookies and from the for and . In fact, the contrast in the 's play, pre-trade to post-trade, has been dramatic. Just take a look at the numbers. Before the trade:
  • record: 26-29
  • scoring average: 97 points per game
  • Points allowed: 98.4
  • Gooden's averages in Memphis: 26.1 minutes, 12.1 points, 5.8 rebounds
  • Giricek's averages in Memphis: 24.2 minutes, 11.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists
After the trade:
  • record: 3-0
  • scoring average: 107 points
  • Points allowed: 98.0
  • Gooden's numbers: 36.7 minutes, 19 points, 9 rebounds
  • Giricek's numbers: 42 minutes, 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3 assists
Granted, three games do not a reliable trend produce, but when you're struggling to establish yourself as a legitimate playoff team, it's a start. It's clear the two new Magicians have helped to take some of the heat off , but it's just as clear that McGrady has begun to accept an even bigger share of the load in Orlando. For all the hype surrounding 's recent run of 40-point games, McGrady has increased his league-leading scoring average with some spectacular scoring performances of his own. What we have now is the best scoring race in more than a decade. The last time two players averaged 30 or more was back in 1989-90, when and finished one-two. (The fact both of those guys still are performing at All-Star levels remains one of the most amazing stories of the season, but that's another topic for another column.) What has changed for McGrady, given the trade conspired with the latest injury setback to to place an even bigger burden on him to carry his team, is an even greater focus that has seemed to sustain him through entire games. McGrady promised to "step his game up to another level" when Miller, his best pal on the team, was dealt to Memphis. Said Doc Rivers: "I like that. I like intensity. I'll put it that way. I like the passion, the toughness. "I just think he's grown. He's just engaged now. Before, he would exhale. He would have a great first half, relax, and that's all you have. Now, he wants it all. When you've got it going, keep engaged. Something special could happen. "That's the maturation of ." The red-hot scoring race that has been a by-product of Bryant's surge and McGrady's re-focus is going to make for a great sidebar to the remaining weeks of the season McGrady, however, says it is just that: A sidebar, not the main story. Said T-Mac: "My big concern right now is, 'Am I going to make my team get to the playoffs? Are we going to make something happen when we get to the playoffs?' "Once I get a ring on my finger, then I'll worry about the individual stuff. We're not too far out of this thing. If I can continue to play the way that I'm playing and these guys play the way they're playing, I think we can make something happen. But I want to get there first." Bryant, of course, already has been there. McGrady admits that Bryant "... does have me running to the TV every night he's playing." McGrady acknowledges he has been in a scoring zone — and doesn't want to get out of it. "You just get in this mood where you feel like you're the best player on the Earth," he said. "Nobody can stop you no matter what type of defense they throw at you. I don't know how I get in this mood, but, hopefully, I can stay in it the rest of the season." Said Rivers: "I'm sure (the ) are happy that T-Mac's rolling because that will keep Kobe going, and we're happy Kobe's going because that will keep T-Mac going. It's not only great for us, it's great for the league — two guys who are locked in a zone with talent." "It's better," Rivers added, "than two non-talented guys who are locked in a zone." Now that's funny. Everyone is into the Kobe vs. T-Mac game right now. And I ask you: Which guy would you choose if both were available and you could have only one? Asked virtually that very question, McGrady gave an interesting answer: "You can't go wrong with both of these guys who have a deep passion for the game. Both of these guys are trying to be the best player in the world. Both of these guys believe that nobody in this league can stop them. That's just how we play. We're competitive players. Every time we step on the floor, we feel like we're the best player on the floor. And that's a great feeling. "He's a hell of a player. I would put him ahead of me. But I'm pretty sure he wouldn't put me ahead of him." My choice? Bryant, for two reasons, both of them considerations over the long haul of their careers: He's a better, more consistent defender and he's never had a back problem. Back problems don't go away, and they usually get worse, not better. McGrady's apt to have occasional bouts with back pain the rest of his career. For now, I'm enjoying the scoring race as much as the next fan.

Magical Mash

Were it not for McGrady and Bryant we'd all be talking about 's play of late. Simply stated, the forward is playing the best basketball of his career. Wednesday's work against the — 18 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists — ordinarily would be big news. Huge, even, considering the triple-double was the first by a New Orleans player and just the second of Mashburn's career. But it was largely overlooked because of the recent play off McGrady and Bryant and , not to mention his own huge scoring games of late. There was the franchise-record and career-high-tying 50 points, including the game-winning jumper with a second remaining in overtime, against Memphis on Feb. 21, and 29 points and the game-winner against Detroit the next night. Sprinkle in three other games of at least 30 points in the 20 games before that. "I'm just playing," Mashburn said after Wednesday's win over Miami. "I'm going out there and playing. Physically, I'm as beat up as anyone else in the league. Physically, sometimes I have to grind it out." The , 32-27 before their Friday night game at Denver, would be hurting if Mashburn hadn't raised the level of his play since the All-Star break. Instead, New Orleans is right in the thick of the race for a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Mash has been a monster, indeed. "I just can't say enough good things about him," coach Paul Silas told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He's carrying us now. He's just on a roll. Whatever is needed, he's providing for us. I have not seen him play better."

Foreign concepts

With so many hot draft prospects playing in European leagues right now, most teams regularly have been sending scouts and player personnel types overseas to scout the likes of Darko Milicic and Sofoklis Schortsianitis. Will the scouts continue to travel abroad should the United States go to war with Iraq? The NBA has no official or quasi-official position on the advisability of traveling overseas in such an event. However some teams already are taking their own position. The Denver , whose high draft position has them keenly interested in players like Milicic and Schortsianitis, likely will immediately stop overseas scouting. For one thing, general manager Kiki Vandeweghe and assistant general managers David Fredman and Jeff Weltman already have taken trips abroad this season to scout players. Vandeweghe tentatively is scheduled for a trip next month that would include scouting Milicic, who is expected to be one of the top three picks in this year's NBA draft. He likely will cancel the trip if the U.S. is at war. "Obviously, we watch the news and we made an effort to get everything done early," Fredman said. "It's obviously something you think about in your planning." Milicic will join his agent, Marc Cornstein, in New York before the June 26 draft and take part in private workouts for select teams in the United States. "Jeff's been (overseas) twice, Kiki's been once and I've been once," Fredman said. "We've got a good idea about the players that are going to be available."

Addressing needs

Since we're discussing European draftees, the are anxious to get something worked out for next season with 22-year-old Yugoslavian Milos Vujanic, who has emerged as the most promising point guard prospect in Europe. The drafted Vujanic in the second round last June. He replaced Los Angeles rookie in Yugoslavian national team's starting lineup midway through the World Championships in August and helped lead Yugoslavia to the title. He has been averaging more than 25 points for Partizan Belgrade this season. And it's not like the don't need help at the point. In Sacramento last week, New York reporters questioned center , who manages Partizan Belgrade, about Vujanic's NBA future. "When he finishes this season, we will sit down and decide," said Divac, who said Vujanic can opt out of his contract with Partizan following this season. "If he asks me, as a friend and teammate from the national team, I would advise him to come after this year straight to New York. But as the president of the club, I wish he could stay. He's in a good position." Vujanic is compared to Dallas All-Star because of his slashing, energetic style. Divac said that made a difference for the Yugoslavians when Vujanic became a starter after two losses in round-robin play in Indianapolis. With his penetration, he created room and scoring opportunities for Divac and All-Star forward . Asked if Vujanic could start for the , Divac didn't hesitate. "Oh, no question," Divac said. "He is that kind of player. I think he's ready, and it would be nice for his career to come straight to New York. It's up to him. He may think he needs one more year to develop. Who knows?"

Motel 6 Mailman

Yet another reason to wish nothing but the best for : The guy sometimes stays at Motel 6. Malone, of course, has been added to the core group for the next Team USA, the one that will play in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in August in the Tournament of the Americas and in the Olympics, in Athens, in 2004. Asked about the prospect of living in the Olympic Village in Athens, rather than in a luxury hotel, Malone last week said he would find it a refreshing change. "That doesn't matter," said The Mailman. "I can stay anywhere. We get spoiled, staying in the Ritz and those places. But in the summer, I've stayed in Motel 6s. Stuff like that makes no difference. We're there to win a gold medal, not on a vacation. Sometimes you make sacrifices. ... It's pretty exciting."

Ultimate

Here's something I'm certain you didn't figure on reading about this season: The with a swagger. "The one thing that this team didn't have when I got here (in late November) was a swagger," pint-sized point guard said. "We played hard but ... "Now, when we're out on the court everyone believes — no matter what — that we're going to win." Said guard : "That's a product of us winning games. We didn't have this atmosphere early. That's getting better. Guys are having fun." Yes, there have been food fights during the ' postgame buffets of late. "The locker room has never been better as far as team chemistry," said first-year coach Eric Musselman, who cut a deal with some of the veterans to give the players a day off after every win. "We've got a lot of guys that are contributing in a lot of different areas. And I think the players are enjoying winning right now." In case you hadn't noticed, the aren't that far behind the and in the race for the eighth, and final, playoff berth in the Western Conference. Senior writer Mike Monroe can be reached at his e-mail address, mmonroe@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, Timberwolves, Knicks, Magic, Suns, Kings, Jazz, Wizards, Grizzlies, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Mike Miller, Peja Stojakovic, Gordan Giricek, Earl Boykins, Marko Jaric, Grant Hill, Drew Gooden

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