BOSTON - Michael Jordan was known as MJ and His Airness. Julius Irving went by Dr. J. Other legends like Larry Bird and John Havlicek went by Larry Legend and Hondo. Kevin McHale? Well, he just went by Kevin McHale.
But don't let the lack of a nickname fool you. McHale was a great, no moniker necessary.
McHale played with one team for his entire 13-year career, the Boston Celtics. McHale would go down in history as one of the greatest Celtics ever, a prestigious honor considering the franchise's glorious history. McHale ranks in the top ten in 10 statistical categories in Celtics history, including points (17,335 points, ranks fifth), games (791, ranks second) and field goal percentage (.554 percent, ranks second).
As usual, the numbers don't tell the whole story, either. In addition to putting up prolific stats, McHale was a three-time champion with the Celtics in 1981, 1984 and 1986 and was a seven-time NBA All-Star. Rightfully so, he took his place alongside the sport's greats in the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Success on the hardwood doesn't guarantee success on the sidelines, though, a lesson McHale has learned from two plus seasons of coaching. McHale's first destination after his playing career was the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he worked his way up to the position of Vice President Of Basketball Operations in 1995.
McHale's first stint with the clipboard came in 2005 after longtime Wolves head coach Flip Saunders was fired. McHale guided Minnesota to a 19-12 record. McHale returned to the front office for several seasons before again becoming the coach during the 2008-09 season, in which he led the T'Wolves to a 20-43 record. Unhappy with McHale's performance, Minnesota let McHale go.
Alas, McHale would get one more shot at a coaching job, replacing Rick Adelman as the coach of the Houston Rockets on June 1, 2011. McHale's Rockets aren't exactly tearing up the league, but at 21-19, they are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in a stacked Western Confidence, which is more than respectable. Nevertheless, McHale is not content.
"I want more wins, but everybody does," said McHale prior to his team's game in Boston on Tuesday. "This is a bizarre year to really start making any evaluations of anything. Training camp starts December 9, you play a game for real December 26, and you're playing sometimes five games in seven, eight days. It's been crazy, you always hope for more practice time that you can work on stuff."
Houston went on to lose a roller coaster game against the Celtics in which they led early, gave up the lead by halftime, made a run and force overtime, only to fall, 97-92. Luis Scola made his presence felt early, scoring 11 of his 18 points in the first quarter while grabbing 14 rebounds in 44 minutes.
Scola has played in Houston for his entire five-year career and has played for two coaches, Adelman and McHale, and has naturally noticed the differences between the two coaching regimes.
"He's got his style just like every coach has his style," Scola said about McHale. "It will always be different from one coach to another. He likes to work, he really loves the game. We all know his history as a player, especially here in [TD Garden] in [Boston]. We all know how he loves to play, compete, work, and he really knows how to win. That's pretty much the main differences we've had this year, not that we didn't have them before, but this coach encourages them and embraces them so much."
So far, not much has changed in the transition from Adelman to McHale as far as actual results are concerned. Of course, McHale is still in his first season. Scola pointed out that they were an above .500 team before McHale got here, and they are still an above .500 team now. However, there are aspects of their game that have changed under McHale.
"I think we are a better defensive team, but we are a worse offensive team," Scola said. "We are able to control the other team's numbers, the numbers opponents score, and we are trying to get above 100 [points] on the scoreboard. Last year, we were easily scoring 104, 105 points, but we were struggling to keep teams below 100 points. This year is kind of like a little bit the other way around. But that's pretty much what we were looking for. We were looking to be a pretty good defensive team. We believe that being a good defensive team, it will help us win games more than being a good offensive team."
Kevin Martin, the Rockets' leading scorer, praised McHale for the spark that he has created.
"He's been great," Martin said. "He's definitely been a great inspiration for our team, you know, somebody that's been through the fire before and established a style of play of toughness and things like that. So I think that's why we're at the point where we are, because of him."
Martin and the Rockets dropped their fifth straight on Wednesday, falling to the lowly Toronto Raptors, 116-98. Martin only had seven points in 19 minutes and Houston was held to 41.4 percent shooting. That simply won't be good enough come the postseason, that is, if they can even make it.
McHale has set the bar at making the playoffs, and the way they've been playing, it's not a given.
"That's our goal, to make the playoffs, but we've got to start playing better," McHale said Tuesday. "The last few games, we've been struggling a little bit. We're the type of team where I have to have six, seven or eight guys playing well. We don't have a guy that's just going to carry us. We don't have two guys who you're just going to say, 'OK, tonight they're just going to carry [us].' Everybody's got to play well and everybody's got to carry the weight, so it's a little bit different.
"We've got to be really focused as a team and really on top of our game. After the break, we haven't been sharp yet, after coming back from the break. We better get sharp because, you know, all you have now is games, not much practice."