By Brian Spencer
The stars seemed aligned for a dramatic return by Tracy McGrady.
Trevos Ariza, who’s replaced T-Mac as the Houston Rockets’ would-be superstar, was out of the lineup Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons due to a one-game suspension. With an open roster spot to fill, a door the franchise had steadfastly held shut no matter how hard McGrady knocked suddenly opened. He didn’t start, but when he rose to his feet about 4 minutes into the game and approached the scorer’s table, the hometown crowd rose with him for a standing ovation.
It’d been over 10 months since the 30-year-old had stepped onto the court in a game that counts… but despite the stage being set for McGrady to gun down the Pistons–and the growing number of skeptics who say his career is donezo–his return was nothing more than, as Rockets color commentator Clyde Drexler so kindly put it, “a chance for him to get his feet wet.” He checked out for good at the end of the first quarter, with 3 points and 3 rebounds in 7:44 minutes of action.
There could still be memorable nights in McGrady’s future; this was, to be fair, a step in the right direction. But this wasn’t about him. He was a subplot, and a minor one at that. No, this mid-December win by the Rockets should be remembered as the night Chase Budinger established himself as a plus player who’s going to be in this league for a long, long time.
Making his first NBA start in his first NBA season, the Rockets’ 6-7 second-round pick, acquired in a draft-day deal with these Pistons, was phenomenal. Yes, he’s got a stroke on his jumper that’s sweeter than a baked sweet potato drizzled in butter and brown sugar, but this kid looks to be much more than your standard, run-of-the-mill spot-up shooter from three-point land who contributes little else. He scored, but he also rebounded, ran the floor, dove to the floor to scramble for loose balls, passed, flashed surprising athleticism. He played defense! In other words, he fit in just fine with this hard-nosed Rockets team that’s once again doing things few predicted they could.
It was a career night for the kid from Arizona, who was projected by some as a lottery pick but ended up falling all the way down to the Pistons with the 44th overall pick (he was swapped for a future second-rounder and cash). Budinger logged career-highs in minutes (40:16), rebounds (12), and assists (5) to go with his 16 points and first career double-double.
Now, Rockets fans already know Budinger oozes potential, as does ETB contributor Zachariah Blott. Budinger has scored at least 10 points off the bench in his first 22 NBA games, including a 19-point effort on December 2 against the Clippers. Red Nation knows they’ve scored another keeper from the wastelands of draft day’s second round. (Of the team’s top-five scorers, only Aaron Brooks is a first-round pick, and he was taken late at that.)
I’d read about Budinger some, but this was the first time I’d seen him for more than a few minutes here and there. When I say his shooting stroke is sweet, I mean he was hitting nothing but net on most of his shots. And when I say he ran the floor well and flaunted his considerable athletic ability… well, this beautiful alley-oop from Brooks says it all:
McGrady probably wasn’t going to get big minutes no matter what he did. He needs to be slowly nursed back into action, and it showed as he huffed and puffed his way to the bench. Still, Budinger made sure McGrady’s services weren’t needed more than minimally, if at all. T-Mac isn’t going to get minutes at the expense of Arizaa; it looks like he shouldn’t be getting them at the expense of Budinger either.
And now we see why “expendable” more aptly describes McGrady’s status in Houston than “needed.”
Chase Budinger Photo Credit: Icon SMI