When most people think of Rod Strickland and Tracy Murray together, the first thing that comes to mind is the time they got into a fight at a hotel just hours before a game in Charlotte. It was an ugly incident that highlighted how dysfunctional things had gotten in Washington just a season after their promising playoff run.
As you’d expect, the team went on a slump. The Wizards lost their next three games, falling to 9-14 on the season and 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Other teams might have made a panic trade to right the ship, but the Wizards stayed firm. Their faith was rewarded as Washington won 15 of their next 24 to get over .500 and back in the playoff hunt.
But just when it looked like things were going the Wizards way, the injury bug hit. Chris Webber injured his shoulder in a win over the Pistons on February 2nd, and then Juwan Howard sprained his ankle three days later in the team’s final game before the All-Star break.
On the other side of that break, the Wizards faced a road trip against the Western Conference’s bottom-feeders - the Warriors, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Kings. Washington couldn’t afford to give away easy wins, even though they weren’t much better off than their opponents with their stars hurt.
Their first test came in Oakland against the Warriors, a team that had dealt with an even bigger fight within the organization that season. Though Golden State didn’t have a lot of talent on that squad, what little they did have was in the frontcourt with up-and-comers like Joe Smith, Erick Dampier, Donyell Marshall, who could challenge Washington’s weakened big man rotation.
Washington had to replace Webber and Howard (the team’s top two scorers) in the starting lineup with the offensively inept Ben Wallace and Terry Davis. It also meant Harvey Grant and Darvin Ham, who both posted single-digit PER’s that season, would be asked to take on larger roles off the bench.
The only way they could win was running the entire offense through Strickland. He got to work quickly, exploiting the Warriors’ weak pick-and-roll defense to create easy shots.
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice as Strickland gets free, the Warriors leave Murray wide open in the corner. Though he didn’t make the pass on that play, he’d set him up plenty of times throughout the game.
If you watch the highlights from Murray’s performance that night, you see just how much of a role Strickland plays in orchestrating it all. He sets Murray up on 13 of his makes. Some came on routine pick-and-pops, others came on marvelous passes like this one:
He also set him up on two plays where he was fouled, and had a hockey assist on a play where he passed the ball to Chris Whitney who then zipped the ball to Murray for a bucket.
It was simple, but it worked. Even though the Wizards only got a combined 10 points from six of the nine players who took the floor, they were able to muster up enough to beat the Warriors 99-87.
When it was all said and done, Murray attempted 29 shots (a career-high), he made 18 of them (a career-high), and finished with 50 points (10 points more than he scored in any other game in his NBA career). He also had 0 assists (tied with a career-low).
Murray got all the headlines but Strickland had the better game. He finished 21 points, 20 assists, and 12 rebounds. The game made him one of only four players since 1983 to put up a triple-double with at least 20 points and 20 assists. Still, the big numbers don’t do justice to how much the team leaned on his production that night. He either made or set up 27 of the team’s 37 field goals that night, as well as 13 of the team’s 26 free throw attempts. Only three of the team’s assists that night came from someone other than Rod Strickland.
It didn’t take long for Murray’s hot shooting to cool off, but Strickland continued to play at a high level in Webber and Howard’s absence. A night after logging 42 minutes in Golden State, he played 45 minutes and put up 32 points and 13 assists in a win over the Clippers.
Strickland followed that up with 22 & 17 in Vancouver against the Grizzlies, and 20 & 10 in Sacramento vs. the Kings. When it was all said and done, he averaged 24.5 points, 13.8 assists, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game during the six game stretch where Webber and Howard were on the shelf.
Unfortunately, the Wizards lost by two against the Grizzlies and Kings, despite Strickland’s spectacular performances. If his teammates could have just mustered up three extra points in each of those narrow losses on the road, Washington would have finished the season 44-38. It would have been the exact same record they posted the year before when they looked like a team on the rise, and they would have snuck into the playoffs as the 7th seed despite their injury woes. Instead, the season was largely viewed as a disappointment, and less than a month later, Washington dealt Chris Webber to the Kings.
We’ll never know how much things might have changed if Strickland had just gotten a little more support during the stretch where the entire team was on his back. But either way, it shouldn’t take anything away from what he did, and how he let his former sparring partner take the spotlight on a night when he was the best player on the floor.