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Ball Don't Lie

Tracy McGrady is playing the role of LeBron James in Spurs practices

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Tracy McGrady shadows LeBron James to better understand his character (Nathaniel S. Butler/ Getty).

The story of the NBA Finals so far has been the San Antonio Spurs' neutralization of LeBron James, the best player in the NBA and an earth-scorching basketball force. After a historically great season, it's been curious to see LeBron play so ineffectually. While he has looked passive at times, James has encountered a Spurs defense with an extremely effective plan to stop him.

It figures that Gregg Popovich, his assistants, and their players have worked out these tactics and strategies over the course of many practice sessions. In doing so, they've depended on someone who's managed just 15 garbage-time minutes in the first three games of the series. From Reuters (via PBT):

Heading into the 2013 Finals, McGrady took on the role of simulating LeBron James in practice to help his team prepare for the best-of-seven series against the Miami Heat.

"That was before this series even started, just simulating a little bit of what LeBron does on the basketball court," said McGrady, whose Spurs lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.

"I'm just doing the best I can and contributing in whatever fashion I can for this team to prepare themselves to win a championship."

On the surface, this is pretty funny: McGrady is 34 years old with his best years well behind him. There's no way that he can accurately mimic LeBron's combination of athleticism and strength — not that anyone can — particularly given the fact that T-Mac hasn't played close to an All-Star level in several seasons. It's as if the Spurs asked him to remember what he once was and translate it to the best of his current abilities.

From another perspective, though, the Spurs are lucky to have someone who could even pretend to be able to serve this role on the scout team. In his prime, McGrady had a varied enough skillset to come across as a proto-LeBron. He was tall, agile, predisposed towards starting possessions on the perimeter, capable of running an offense, an adept passer when he chose to be one, etc. T-Mac always use his size more in terms of his length than power, but he's familiar with having an athletic advantage over his opponents. He has enough experience in a role similar to that of James to approximate it with some confidence.

This is not to say that LeBron would be torching the Spurs if not for T-Mac. However, it does serve as evidence that apparently inconsequential players can play a big role behind the scenes. We typically praise low-minutes veterans in terms of their locker room presence. McGrady shows that they can contribute to wins on the basketball court, too.

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