There weren’t a lot of expectations for Jason Terry when the Houston Rockets picked him in the offseason. At the age of 37 and in his 16th season in the NBA, he looked like he was on his very last legs as a basketball player. After being let go by the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, Terry was on his fifth team in four seasons, following unsuccessful stints with the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets and a brief banishment to the Sacramento Kings, a team he never even suited up for. His offense had slipped and his defense, which had never been a strong point, had become abysmal. The idea was that he would be a veteran mentor for the Rockets young stars - anything he provided on the court would be a bonus.
While he was able to carve out a role for himself as a backup in Houston, most people assumed his role would be minimized once the playoffs began and rotations shortened. However, when Patrick Beverley went down with a wrist injury, Terry was suddenly thrust into into the starting line-up for the first time in well over a decade. His minutes and shots have gone up in the playoffs and he has responded by looking like the Jet of old, averaging 8.5 points and 2.0 assists a game on preposterous shooting percentages -- 52% from the field, 53% from 3. It could end up being the final run for one of the more remarkable careers in recent NBA history.
Terry first appeared on the national stage all the way back in 1997, when he helped lead Arizona on an unlikely run to the NCAA championship. After finishing fifth in the Pac-12, they caught fire in March, defeating three No. 1 seeds - Kansas, UNC and Kentucky - loaded with future NBA players. Looking back on it, those Wildcats were a vision of the future, spreading the court with four future NBA guards - Terry, Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson - who could shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and create for others. Terry and Bibby were a particularly dynamic duo, two 6’2 combo guards who would spend a combined 30 seasons in the NBA.
At 6’2 180, Terry was the prototype guard trapped between two positions. He had the ball-handling, passing and shooting ability to be a PG, but he was never a guy comfortable running the offense, controlling tempo and making sure everyone else was involved in the flow of the game. Jet Terry has always been about getting buckets. In many ways, he was a beta version of Steph Curry, an elite shooter just as comfortable creating off the bounce as he was running off screens. It’s pretty much impossible to defend a guy who dribbles into 28 foot jumpers and few guys in the history of the NBA have been better at that than Terry.
While he came into the league ready to score at a high level, it took him a long time to find a role that would fit his game. He was miscast as a playmaker on some bad Atlanta Hawks teams in the early 00’s, asked to be a floor general when he was more comfortable firing away from the perimeter. Combine his ball-dominant style with streaky shooting and his lack of defense and he wasn’t a great fit for a rebuilding franchise. He didn’t make the playoffs in his first six seasons in the league and he developed the reputation of a guy who put up big stats on bad teams.
He got a second chance in 2004, when the Mavericks acquired him to fill the hole at PG after letting Steve Nash walk in free agency. The marriage was troubled from the start - not only was Nash one of the most beloved players in Mavericks history, he was playing at an MVP level in Phoenix while his replacement struggled with the responsibility of being the QB of an elite team. Terry was constantly compared to the ghost of Nash, with things reaching a nadir in the 2005 playoffs, when he let Nash walk into an open 3 to tie the game at the end of regulation in Game 6 of their second-round series against the Suns, a mental mistake which saw Dirk Nowitzki cussing him out on national TV.
Strangely enough, it took playing for Avery Johnson, a former PG whose playing style was the antithesis of everything Terry was about, to get the best out of him. While Don Nelson tried to play as many offensive-minded players as possible, Johnson started stacking the Mavs rotation so that he only had two weak-links on that side of the ball - Terry and Dirk. Freed from a lot of their defensive responsibilities, the Mavs two offensive stars lead Dallas to an NBA Finals appearance in 2006 and a 67-win season in 2007. With everything running through Dirk, Dallas didn’t need a conventional PG running the show.
Terry and Nowitzki took the two-man game to a whole different level, as there was almost no way to defend the way they played off each other. You couldn’t give any space on the perimeter to either and both guys had the quickness, ball-handling and passing ability to attack a close-out and destroy the second line of defense. For as great a reputation as Dirk had as a shooter, Terry wasn’t too far behind. I’ll never forget my first time covering a Mavs practice and watching Terry stroke 3’s in shooting drills - if he had time to set his feet, he was basically never going to miss.
The numbers speak for themselves. Despite not being particularly athletic or capable of playing above the rim, Terry has scored at a high level since the day he came into the league. He’s the rare volume shooter who could score with efficiency, with almost 18,000 career points on 44.6% shooting. And if you respected the shot, he could go right around you and find the open man, handing out over 5,000 career assists with a career assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 2:1. Terry is proof that physical ability isn’t the be-all end-all of a great NBA career. If you work on your craft long enough, there will always be a place at the highest levels of the game for guys who can shoot, handle and pass the ball.
The problem for the mid 00’s version of the Mavs is they were built to stop post-centric teams like the San Antonio Spurs but they had no real answers for the first version of the pace-and-space teams that were starting to take over the league. They always struggled against Nash’s Suns, only beating them when Amar’e Stoudemire was out with a knee injury in 2006, and their run at the top of the West came to an abrupt halt in 2007, when their former coach (Don Nelson) used all their old tactics against them, spreading the floor with smaller and more athletic shooters and running their slower big men (Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop) out of the game.
Terry and Dirk, as the leaders of that team, ended up taking the brunt of the blame for the Mavs inability to get over the final hump and win a championship. To be sure, their inability to play much defense tied the hands of the coaching staff and limited their maneuverability in a lot of playoffs series. However, as the two hung around Dallas and built continuity as the years went by, the Mavs slowly began adding the type of defensive pieces necessary to get back into contention - Jason Kidd in 2008, Shawn Marion in 2010 and finally Tyson Chandler in 2011.
By the start of the 2011 season, most national observers had written off the Mavs as legitimate contenders. Terry and Dirk had been together for seven seasons and they had only been out of the first round three times, including losses as a 1 seed in 2007 and a 2 seed in 2010. All five of their best players - Terry, Dirk, Kidd, Marion and Chandler - were nearing the end of their athletic primes and it seemed like a new generation of players in their early and mid 20’s had taken over the NBA. When Dallas made a seemingly unlikely run to the 2011 NBA Finals to play the Miami Heat, few people gave them a chance.
For as much credit as Dirk and Chandler and Rick Carlisle have gotten for that championship, it was Terry’s belief that fueled the team as much as anything else. Terry thought he was the baddest mother f'er on the court everytime he laced up his shoes and no amount of data or evidence or common sense was going to convince him otherwise. This is a guy who got a tattoo of the Larry O’Brien trophy on his bicep before the season started - he was the perfect complement to Dirk’s more understated personality in the locker room. Terry had Allen Iverson’s swag and Jeff Hornacek’s game. In his mind, the most gangster thing you could do was hit a pull-up mid-range jumper. He has such a fundamentally sound game and he’s so polished in his interactions with the media that people forget he has been throwing up gang signs after making shots his entire career.
Coming into that Finals, LeBron James had been on a roll defensively, most notably in shutting down league MVP Derrick Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. At 6’9 260 with a 7’0 wingspan and at the peak of his athleticism, LeBron was the most feared defensive player in the league. It was almost impossible to get a good shot 1-on-1 against him and with the Heat still figuring out how their offense would work in the Big Three era, LeBron put a lot of his focus on the defensive side of the ball in those playoffs. Since he was too short to guard Dirk, the Heat decided to stick LeBron on Terry and ice him out of the series.
Was Terry intimidated by going up against one of the greatest players of all time? Absolutely not. Unlike Rose, who wanted to attack the rim, Terry made his living by throwing in 3’s 28+ feet from the basket. When you are playing in that much space that far away from the basket, it doesn’t matter as much how much bigger and faster your opponent is. Over the course of the series, the Mavs attacked LeBron on both sides of the ball while Terry talked an epic amount of trash and gradually started to wear him down. In the big moments when his team needed him the most, Terry came up huge - 21 points on 12 shots in Game 5, 27 points on 16 shots in Game 6.
The Mavs were broken apart in the offseason and LeBron eventually got his revenge in an epic alley-oop over Terry in 2013, but history had been written and the damage was done. Without Jason Terry, the Heat might have won a championship in each of their first three seasons and who knows whether they would still be together. He was never one of the best players in the league, he never made an All-Star team and he won’t be in the Hall of Fame, but he still had a career that 99% of players would kill for - anyone with an NBA championship, a NCAA championship and 16 seasons in the league must have been doing something right.
Who knows what’s going to happen with the Rockets this season and it certainly seems like Terry’s inability to defend will rear its head at some point in the playoffs. Nevertheless, if the game is close in the fourth quarter, you have to mark Terry all over the floor, which creates a ton of space for James Harden and Dwight Howard. And if he caps off his career with one more big shot on the biggest possible stage, don’t be surprised. Shooting never goes out of style and Jason Terry was one of the greatest shooters of his generation.