By Cub Buenning

If we don’t get out of the first round, it’s on me!”—Tracy McGrady.

When a player speaks in absolutes like this, we tend to look at him as a leader, someone to rally behind.

“This team is gonna go as far as I can take ’em.”

While the tone is perhaps defensive, T-Mac’s confidence and self-assuredness, not to mention his unquestionable skill set, make us strongly hope to see him succeed; we want to see more. The criticism that has been written, discussed and posed several times during his 10-year career, however, is blatant and quite possibly deserved.

“I don’t worry about people saying that I haven’t made it out of the first round. That’s not going to define the type of player I am.”

But here we are again—deep in yet another postseason that saw the man lose in the first round.

We all remember the ’02-03 Playoffs, when T-Mac’s Orlando Magic had the Detroit Pistons on the ropes in the first round, three games to one. We all remember how the man made the mistake of “looking ahead.” And we all remember how Motown took three straight to send McGrady home.

Two years later, McGrady’s first in H-Town, a seven-game defeat at the hands of the Mavericks was punctuated by a Game 7, 40-point beatdown in which Mac struggled.

“Coming into this Playoffs, I’m just happy to be back, especially after a dismal season last year,” McGrady said before the current postseason began. “Just the anticipation, the excitement to be in the Playoffs in that first game, you always have the jitters.”

A first-round match-up with the Northwest Division champion Utah Jazz awaited McGrady and the Rockets. Sure, the pressure was acutely applied to McGrady, but the Rockets had a little decade-long streak of their own to snap. Not since its ’97 Playoff run—which ended in the Western Conference Finals against the Stockton and Malone-led Jazz—had the team from “Clutch City” sniffed the second round.

This fact was not lost on former Rocket and current hoops-pontificator/agitator, Charles Barkley, who mentioned that if the Rockets lost in the first round again there wouldn’t be a monkey on McGrady’s back, rather, “there’s going to be a whole zoo.”

Gather up the animals, then.

With Houston’s dramatic and disappointing seven-game defeat at the hands of the Jazz, the Rockets and their forlorn star have again been put under the microscope.
Are McGrady’s postseason failures a team problem? A coaching issue? Or is there really an issue with the man himself?

Just days following his team’s latest Game 7 loss, head coach Jeff Van Gundy took steps to wrestle the spotlight away from his star as he publicly debated whether or not to step down as the conductor of this misfit orchestra. “I love basketball,” Van Gundy told the Houston Chronicle after his team was eliminated but before he was relieved of his coaching duties. “But I hate what it does to me.”

Perhaps he should have hated the roster he was trying to work with. To be honest, the parts in Houston fit together like oil and water. To have fast-paced PG Rafer Alston teamed with an athletic talent like T-Mac seemed counterintuitive to the philosophical tenets of a Van Gundy-coached team. Throw in an immobile post player who needs frequent touches and you have a struggle to find flow.

When Yao is out of games, the pace immediately hastens as Mac and Skip run things like the post-less Golden State Warriors. Complementary parts, including Shane Battier, were added last summer, but unfortunately for the Rockets, one of their other acquisitions was Bonzi Wells.

Let’s get historical. In his five previous trips to the postseason, McGrady the individual has been a star; his career Playoff averages of 30/7/6 actually dwarf his impressive regular-season digits.

Mac was just a young buck in ’00 when he and cousin Vince Carter were swept by the New York Knicks. During his first two Playoff runs with Orlando, all McGrady did was lead the League in Playoff points per game while at the same time upping his output in both the rebound and assist categories.

But other than Vince, name another serviceable player from his T-Dot days. This lack of on-court support speaks to the stigma that has saddled McGrady since he came to the League in ’97 as a raw, skinny 18-year-old.

In year one of the Yao Ming and McGrady experiment, the two missed just six games combined on their way to a 50-win season. In that season’s second month, McGrady cemented his legacy in Houston with a now legendary performance against the rival Spurs.

With his team down 10 and 50 seconds left, McGrady put forth an individual performance that would have made even the most carefree gunner blush. Four straight Rocket possessions yielded four McGrady 3-point baskets, including his last with just one second remaining to lift Houston to an improbable 81-80 win. 13 points in 33 seconds.

To add to the night’s mystique, McGrady put forth his palpitating performance with the League’s most physical and menacing defender, Bruce Bowen, claiming residence in his drawers.

Postgame, McGrady himself admitted to being amazed: “I’ve never been a part of anything like this before,” he said.

Just one year ago, however, fans of the Rockets were back wallowing in the doldrums after their team failed to qualify for the Playoffs. A 34-48 season was easily attributed to the injuries of McGrady and Yao. For the season, Houston’s dynamic duo missed a combined 80 games and during those stretches the team failed to be competitive.

This season, things changed, in large part thanks to McGrady’s maturation. When he was sidelined in mid-December with back spasms, the Rockets failed to jump on their center’s back, playing the seven McGrady-less games at a 2-5 clip.

In the last game of that set, the team’s fortunes were again altered when Yao suffered a right leg fracture, forcing him to miss the next 32. Bucking the aforementioned history, T-Mac carried the load and kept the Rockets well above .500 while their big center was out.

McGradles also let his inner point guard out during the regular season, much to his team’s benefit. In the 25 regular season games in which McGrady had at least 8 assists, the Rockets were an astonishing 24-1, something his teammates appreciate.

“He’s a willing passer and he loves to score,” says Alston. “He just takes what the defense gives him. So, if they put their guy in front, he’s going to make the good pass, if they don’t, he’s going to go to the basket.”

May 5, 2007. Houston. Game 7.

In a series where serve had been held by the home team in every game, the Rockets looked to be an overwhelming favorite as the H-Town faithful poured into the Toyota Center. Things did not get off to a promising start as the visiting Jazz danced out to a 10-point halftime lead behind the inside-out attack of Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams.

Having never held a halftime lead in the entire series, the Rockets did not crumble, instead slowly working their way back. With just eight minutes left in the game, the Rockets took the lead.

McGrady scored. He defended. He rebounded. He balled.

However, in a League largely dependent on individual matchups, the Jazz presented a frontcourt riddle that the Rockets could ultimately not solve. Unable to chase Utah center Mehmet Okur out to the three-point stripe, Yao was forced to cover the smaller and quicker Boozer from the block to the high-post.

Due to Yao and Skip’s continued failure to properly defend Utah’s pick-and-roll—yes, the Jazz still run that to death—Boozer was able to convert a series of huge baskets down the stretch on his way to a behemoth line of 35 and 14. In Utah’s last two possessions—where they held slim one-possession advantages—the visitors were given complimentary rebates after Houston was unable to corral the
defensive boards.

Game, set, match, Utah.

When the elimination game ended, the brash confidence McGrady exuded before the series was absent. “Maybe I could have made an extra play,” he said. “Maybe I could have gathered those loose rebounds we didn’t get coming down the stretch of the game. Maybe I could have done more. It didn’t happen.”

When a follow-up question was posed, McGrady paused, bowed his head and wiped away a couple of tears, looking back up
before saying, “I can’t.”

Two games after dishing out a career-high 16 assists in the Rockets’ Game 5 win, McGrady finished the series’ swan song with a terrific 29 points and 13 assists. But the years of hearing about the failures had obviously worn on the man.

“I said, ‘This team is gonna go as far as I can take ’em.’ And I tried my best. I tried, man.”