JaVale McGee has proven over the course of his four-year NBA career that he is capable of performing spectacular physical feats on the basketball court. What he has not yet proven is whether those feats can regularly translate into wins. In his first on-court action as a member of the Denver Nuggets following last Thursday's three-team trade, he offered the suggestion that they can.
McGee's tip dunk of a missed Arron Afflalo free throw with five seconds remaining gave the Nuggets a 116-115 home win over the visiting Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night. It was a game that Denver basically had no business winning after blowing a 25-point first-half lead and allowing Ben Gordon to turn in what PistonPowered blogger Dan Feldman called a "seemingly ... impossible performance" with 45 points on 22 shots and an NBA-record-tying nine 3-point makes without a miss.
And yet, at game's end, McGee's hustle sent the Pepsi Center faithful home happy. From the Associated Press:
"I just went hard and pushed [Greg Monroe] under the rim and I was wide open. It bounced and bounced and I was trying not to goaltend it and I just dunked it. It was definitely exciting, my first game winner. I'm definitely excited to be in Denver, my new home." [...]
"I'm sure it's a proud moment for him, coming here and in the first game that he plays in, to win a game," Nuggets coach George Karl said of McGee. "It's pretty classy, a pretty good chapter."
Of course it was classy, George Karl. JaVale McGee exudes class. His alter ego's name is Pierre. You can't get any classier than that.
Now, it bears mentioning that McGee's game-winner had an awful lot to do with a crushing fundamental miscue by Monroe, Detroit's emerging star center.
As Afflalo let his second free throw fly, Monroe was slow to get off the block, failing to turn his hips and shoulders toward the backboard to impede McGee's path to the glass. That momentary lapse was all McGee needed to slip past the Georgetown product and stake a claim to the real estate at the front of the rim.
To Monroe's credit, he recognized and regretted the error, writing on Twitter after the game that his effort was "unacceptable." And Monroe's far from a habitually lazy rebounder; he grabs right around 24 percent of available defensive boards, a rate that ranks in the top 20 among players who average at least 20 minutes a night and have played at least 20 games. Late on Wednesday, though, he hesitated, and he who hesitates is lost.
While we pin deserved blame on Monroe, though, let's not damn McGee with faint praise. He deserves credit for doing a number of things right to put himself in position to make the game-winning play.
In a postgame interview, McGee acknowledged recognizing before the shot went up that the Pistons had decided not to bracket him with two bodies on the boxout. Once the ball was in the air, he hustled off the line, forcing Monroe to push him, leaving the Detroit center off-balance. McGee then took a quick step backward, which ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin pointed out gave him an opportunity to gather himself and created space for him to explode to the rim. (JaVale's memory's a bit off; he didn't push Monroe under the rim as much as blow past him, leaving Monroe on the outside looking in.)
After that, as Nate Timmons wrote in his recap at Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs, despite finding "himself alone floating in the air and ready for the put-back dunk," McGee showed patience and "waited for the ball to clear the cylinder before" making contact, ensuring that he wouldn't be whistled for an illegal touch and that the bucket would count. Then, he dunked it on the way down, which is something we all know that JaVale can do really well, but still had to go right for the Nuggets to take the lead.
One more thing had to go right for the Nuggets to keep the lead: Gordon had to miss his attempt at a game-winning answer at the other end. He did. This, as SB Nation's Brian Floyd noted, surprised his teammates and made them very sad.
After the game, McGee told reporters, including Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post, that he "didn't think Arron was going to miss the free throw, but if he did I was going in hard and I might be able to get the tip-in or at least a tip-out." There's never been any question about McGee's ability to go hard; the questions have always been about whether he'd ever start going hard in the right direction. (Sometimes literally.) On Wednesday night, he was, and that helped seal a Denver win.
The 24-year-old — God, he's still only 24 — still has a long way to go to convince NBA fans that he's pointed the right way, but on a talented Nuggets team with an established head coach at the helm, multiple options to replace him at the five if he doesn't straighten up and fly right, and the pressure of a playoff hunt to give him purpose, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the NBA's greatest oddity could finally find some normalcy. Stranger things have happened. JaVale McGee's been involved in most of them.
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