By Emry DowningHall

Before this series began Tracy McGrady asked that that all the pressure that comes with winning a playoff series be placed squarely on his shoulders. After dropping two straight games in Utah after winning two straight at home, T-Mac didn’t displace blame but asked that his teammates step up when their number was called. Last night in Houston, McGrady got what he asked for.

All eyes were on the sleepy star of the Houston Rockets and McGrady responded leading his team to a must win game 5 victory. T-Mac tallied 26 points and a monstrous 16 assists (career high) to lead his team to a 96-92 victory last night, holding onto home court advantage.

At the start, things looked a little bleak. The fans at the Toyota Center were on the hush in the first quarter after McGrady went down with a hip-pointer. Jeff Van Gundy may have suffered an aneurism on the spot, when he glanced over and saw his franchise bent over pleading for a timeout.

McGrady went to the locker room with 1:14 left in the first quarter. The man is a superstar but his history of injury had everyone wearing red, feeling blue. However, injury time wasn’t in the cards and moments later McGrady was back on the floor. Before halftime, T-Mac told Craig Sager that the hip injury was painful but smiled and reminded us what we already knew, “it’s the playoffs, this is my team, I gotta be out there.”

Houstons late run in the second quarter cut what was a 9 point deficit to 1 before halftime. The Rockets knocked down their last seven shots and were confident heading into the locker room.

The second half of this game was just phenomenal basketball by both teams. Utah and Houston had their offensive schemes clicking and even AK-47 was getting into the act. Early in the third he curled off a screen knocking down a tough fade away jumper. And then came down and added another from the corner. He had a very nice weak side block on Yao Ming, and hooked up with Carlos Boozer for a backdoor lay-up and an alley oop.

His state line wasn’t spectacular (8 points, 5 dimes, 4 boards, 3 blocks) but for those of you who have been following the, “what happened to my AK?” saga this season, did you see what transpired after his two handed dunk in the fourth? With 5.50 left in the game, Tracy McGrady, left Andrei to double the post. AK recognized this and cut to the hoop as soon as T-Mac turned his head. Andrei got the ball and flushed it with two hands for a nice finish in traffic. It was nothing spectacular but after all the issues he has dealt with recently it was the type of play that can get you going. As Andrei raced up the court, Shane Battier, slapped him on the ass as if to say, “nice to have you back.” AK’s face post slap was priceless. Anyone else catch this?

Speaking of Battier he wasn’t shy showing his range from downtown, nailing 5 treys on the night for 15 points and helping to spread the defense for McGrady.

AK-47 was working hard on defense when he was assigned to cover McGrady last night. But with 6.30 left in the 3rd quarter, things got ugly. Andrei was sitting back in his defensive stance, and was a little off-balance. McGrady recognized this and made him look foolish, blowing by his outstretched hand and throwing one down on a sliding Mehmet Okur. Hey, it’s Tracy McGrady. These things happen. If Derek Fisher is the alternative, I would take my chances with Andrei all night. When McGrady gets Fisher in isolation, it’s an automatic two.

You have to admire a guy with absolutely no shooting conscious. Actually, you either admire him or despise him, depending on the situation. Luther Head is unquestionable that type of player. I was poised to write something killing his jumper and shot selection after two bad misses to start the fourth quarter and then the kid goes off and buries two deep threes in succession to shut me up. Gotta love it.

Quick note: Once Jeff Van Gundy passed on resting T-Mac where he usually does at the end of the third, this game officially became a must win for the Rockets. Not that it wasn’t before, I’m just saying.

Gordon Giricek took a crack at guarding McGrady with about 7 minutes to play in the fourth. McGrady put a spin move on him with a little hook and Giricek fell to his knees. What a nightmare! McGrady then sliced to the hoop, presented the ball on the right side, took it up and under and finishing on the left. Charles Barkley would later refer to the sequence as, “Serious stuff.”

Utah stayed in this game by moving without the basketball, hitting the offensive glass and playing solid defense. They deserve a lot of credit for hanging in there and were able to withstand a couple of nice runs from the Rockets that could have put the game away. Matt Harpring was clutch off the bench nailing back to back baseline jumpers. Carlos Boozer then got the ball, foul line extended and went to the jab step drive, switching hands on a tough lay-up to bring Utah within a point.

The Utah run was cut short when Derek Fisher was called for a charge with 12 seconds on the clock. The play could have gone either way, but looked like the kind of call that goes against you on the road. Yao knocked down two huge free throws and Deron Williams’s airballed two shots on the final play as the Rockets held on for the 3-2 edge heading back to Utah.

This was by far the most exciting game of the series. McGrady needs one more to silence the haters but it wont be easy to snag in Utah. I think Barkley put it best when he said in the postgame, “Quit? No. A Jerry Sloan team will never quit!” Amen to that. Game 6 is Thursday in Utah.

Random Notes:

-Deron Williams struggled with his crossover to pull-up jumper tonight. When he has that going, he is impossible to guard because he truly looks to get his teammates involved and still doesn’t force a thing. He is a special player.

-Juwan Howard may not be able to dunk a basketball anymore (joking, sort of) but if you want to learn to cut and move without the basketball, as well as use your body, you should look no further the J-Smoothe.

-AK-47 and Matt Harpring on the floor together seemed to work well for Utah. Andrei is an excellent passer and continues to hustle even while struggling.

-Carlos Boozer failed to record a double-double for the first time in the series on Monday night.