(Yes, that’s Derrick Rose staring at the JumboTron while Vinny’s talking…)
When Baron Davis and Marcus Camby made their return against the Bulls last week, I noted that NBA teams like to ease their stars back into action in home games versus lesser opponents. Therefore it’s not too surprising that Tracy McGrady — not-so-affectionately known as “Knee-Mac” at Basketbawful — is making his comeback from a sprained ankle tonight when the Bulls visit the Rockets in Houston. This means that the rarest of events will take place: McGrady, Yao Ming and Ron Artest will all appear in the same game. Now if Jupiter aligns with Mars, it’ll be the Age of Aquarius all over again.
Yao, the healthiest of Houston’s M.A.S.H. unit, has missed only three games this season. However, Artest has 13 excused absences and McGrady has 17 (some of which were only semi-excused). Fortunately for Houston, Dr. Yao — who leads the Rockets in scoring (19.6 PPG), rebounding (9.5 RPG), blocks (1.6 BPG) and field goal percentage (54.2 percent) — has used his advanced knowledge of basketballogy to will the Rockets to a 29-19 record. And he’s likely to be the Greatest Wall standing between the Bulls and their fourth straight win. (I will fully understand if you report me to the Pun Police after that stinker.)
Think about it: The Bulls haven’t been able to contain big men this season. Even the bad ones. As repeatedly noted, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace, Darko Milicic, Nick Collison and Zaza Pachulia have all had season-highs against us. And let’s not forget the 39 points Al Jefferson exploded for in the Bulls’ first stop on this seven-game odyssey. During that contest, all the Chicago defenders could do was jam a forearm in Big Al’s back and hope his shots would miss. As it turns out, hoping? Not so effective. I can envision only two circumstances in which Yao will fail to score at least 30. In the first scenario, Houston buries us so early that Yao plays only 20 minutes or so. In the second, the Norse gods answer my prayers and send Thor down from Asgard to hit Yao with his magic hammer, Mjolnir (pronounced myôl’nir). I’m still holding out hope for the latter.
So Yao’s probably going to get his numbers no matter what. And if that’s the case, Vinny Del Negro should focus his defensive game plan on stopping T-Mac. The Bulls haven’t managed a win over him since he was traded to the Rockets in 2004-05. In that time, Chicago has lost 10 of the last 11 to Houston — including the last five — and the one, lonely victory happened in Houston when McGrady was (surprise!) out with an injury on November 26, 2005. (In that game, Yao scored 30, but David Wesley, Luther Head and Stromile Swift were, oddly enough, unable to pick up the slack.) In point of fact, the last time the Bulls bested McGrady was on December 16, 2003, when Tracy was playing for a truly horrific Orlando Magic team that featured such NBA immortals as Gordan Giricek, Shammond Williams, Andrew DeClercq and Zaza Pachulia. (No wonder he wanted out of Orlando by any means necessary.)
So in terms of checklists, here’s what the Bulls need to do. First, don’t let Yao score a season-high. That would be a moral victory. Second, blanket T-Mac and force him to fire away from the outside (he’s sure to be rusty). The same goes for Ron Artest (who’s shooting only 38 percent from the floor this season). Take turns massaging Derrick Rose’s sprained left foot. Continue to rally around the beleagured Vinny Del Negro (even if you wanted nothing to do with his Super Bowl party). Play defense like madmen. Madmen, I tell you. And try to hold onto — maybe even build on? — the momentum from the last three games.