Throughout his sometimes exhilarating, often perplexing and always entertaining time in Washington, JaVale McGee was never lacking in physical gifts. Unfortunately, that didn’t add up to him being a very good basketball player for the Wizards.
But on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, in the same building where he once dunked on two rims, McGee could take credit for helping the Denver Nuggets extend their series with the Lakers for at least another game. McGee used those tools – which were rarely tapped properly in Washington – to have a performance that didn’t necessarily erase this season’s blooper-reel beginnings but left a more favorable lasting impression.
In his best game since arriving in Denver, McGee almost single-handedly outplayed Lakers twin towers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds (to their combined 25 points and 21 rebounds) as the Nuggets won 102-99 at Staples Center.
The series returns to Denver for Game 6 on Thursday, with the Nuggets trailing three games to two, and McGee has played a major role in both wins. McGee had 16 points and 15 rebounds in Denver’s Game 3 victory and was all over the place with his team facing elimination.
He corralled a rebound, whirled around the baseline and dunked over Bynum. He threw down alley-oop lobs that Andre Miller delivered from beyond halfcourt and the three-point line. And, he blocked a Gasol dunk attempt in the final two minutes.
“He’s blossoming in this series,” Kobe Bryant (43 points) said of McGee.
But Wizards fans shouldn’t start getting depressed and worrying that the front office blundered and gave up on McGee too quickly. Forget that McGee has been largely a non-factor in Denver’s three losses – or that McGee hasn’t done anything different in this series than he already showed with the Wizards. Just take a step back for a minute and understand that it wasn’t going to happen for McGee in D.C.
His deficiencies were accentuated with the Wizards because of an environment of too much youth and dysfunction (and yes, McGee actually contributed to some of that with his immaturity and stat chasing). McGee was handed a role that exceeded his abilities and he failed to – or was unwilling to – respond to the messages he received from the coaching staff.
That left McGee to learn through his mistakes, which usually played out in embarrassingly comedic fashion as he led ill-fated fastbreaks, missed dunks and provided several head-scratching moments. And, if the team had rewarded him with a gaudy contract this summer, there was no guarantee that he or the Wizards would improve together (the numbers after he was traded don’t lie).
In Denver, McGee has an accomplished coach in George Karl who has developed several big men throughout his illustrious career, from Shawn Kemp to, hey, Nene. McGee is also a part of a team that is simply asking him to fit in and earn his keep. Surrounded by serious players who are focused on winning, McGee either gets it right, or he has to sit down. He knows that if he doesn’t bring his best effort, the Nuggets can go elsewhere for production.
McGee said after the game that Bynum’s comments from the day before that closeout games are “actually kind of easy” served as motivation, but there is no doubt that he had some extra bounce with Game 5 potentially being his final game before hitting free agency. He responded to both situations by having the most meaningful game of his career.
“I’m here,” McGee said after the game. “Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs. My last game of the year is usually at the end of the regular season in April. I didn’t want my last game to be [on Tuesday].”
McGee’s play should serve as a reminder of what the Wizards need to do to truly expedite their efforts to rebuild. His performance was further proof that if John Wall is ever going to develop into the player that he is meant to become, he is going to need to be placed in an environment of accountability and surrounded by more eager-to-win veterans with important roles.
Players don’t learn only from their instructors, some of their best lessons come from peers. McGee did most of his damage on Tuesday when he shared the floor with veterans Miller, Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari – and it made a huge difference. McGee’s responsibilities were simplified to making beelines down the middle of the lane, rebounding and altering shots. He stopped making silly goaltends and his confidence grew with each possession in the second half.
Miller is one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA and has won almost everywhere he’s been. He’s wily, old-school, and has had an old man game dating back to his time in college at Utah. But aside from repeatedly looking for McGee and rewarding him on the break, Miller also made an overlooked, but highly important play in the second quarter.
Bynum was about to dunk but Miller fouled him, then collected a technical foul after shoving him in the back. The forearm to the back was a form of retaliation for Bynum’s hard foul on McGee earlier in the game. Bynum horse-collared McGee and threw him to the ground in the first period, but since the referee didn’t give Bynum a flagrant foul, Miller made the equivalent of a citizen’s arrest.
What happened after that? McGee went on to make his next nine field goals, with three coming on assists from Miller. When a teammate shows he has your back, you play harder for him.
That’s why it’s important to have experienced players around, and why the Wizards have to realize that Nene alone isn’t enough. McGee and Nick Young are both surrounded by more talent and experience and having some big games this postseason. But instead of looking back, the Wizards need to focus on the difference Nene has already made on the organization and realize that bringing more of his ilk to Washington can help a roster of kids improve much quicker.
Talent is wasted without guidance.