Sunday May 6th, 2007

I had to ask the question. As Tracy McGrady sat at the podium in the bowels of EnergySolutions Arena, barely 30 minutes removed from a crushing Game 6 defeat, he answered questions ranging from the Rockets' shaky performance to Andrei Kirilenko's pesky defense. Then, the thought occurred to me: is Saturday's Game Seven the biggest game of McGrady's career?

Tracy didn't think so.

"No," he replied. "I've been in other game seven's before. Why is this the biggest? I'll be in other game seven's."

While that is almost certainly true, when McGrady takes the Toyota Center floor in Houston on Saturday, it will be without question be the defining moment of his 10-year career.

Since it's beginning, this series has been about T-Mac. He asked us to put it on him. Forget Yao, who himself has not advanced past the first round since entering the league in '02. Forget Jeff Van Gundy, Houston's sleep-deprived coach, who hasn't been to conference semifinal since leaving New York in '01. McGrady willingly bore the responsibility for getting Houston out of the first round, something he has yet to accomplish. Sure, T-Mac has had some near misses -- who can forget the 3-1 lead his Orlando Magic team blew in '03 to Detroit? -- but never has he shouldered the responsibility the way he has in this series.

Can he do it? Depends which McGrady shows up. While the home team has won every game this series, that fact became less important when Kirilenko returned to form and became the defensive presence the Jazz have been lacking at the small forward position. Kirilenko's re-emergence effectively neutralizes that advantage. Despite the three losses, Utah has played much better in Houston than the Rockets have performed in Salt Lake City: In three games in Houston, the Jazz are averaging 85.7 points. By contrast, Houston has averaged just 78 in Salt Lake City. Those numbers are even more important when you consider that neither team has cracked the 100-point barrier this series.

It also depends on what McGrady gets for help. I was mildly surprised when I looked at the stat sheet Thursday night and saw Yao scored 25 points. It certainly was a quiet 25. Utah has done an excellent job mixing and matching defenses against Yao (though you will never get Jerry Sloan to admit it); Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Jarron Collins have all taken their turns and each has been effective at moving Yao in and out of his spots.

Yao needs to be more assertive. Catches he is making 14-15 feet from the basket need to be in the 8-9 range. Fadeaway jump shots need to be replaced by power moves around the rim. Turning the ball over, as he did eight times Thursday night, is not an option. As much as this is a critical game in McGrady's career, Yao must also prove his worth as a franchise center.

For Utah, it comes down to whether or not they can make shots. Okur found his range Thursday night, shooting 4-for-7 from three-point territory. But Okur is averaging just 6.4 points in Houston, compared to 10.6 on his home floor. Okur's shooting touch, along with that of Deron Williams and Matt Harpring, will likely determine Utah's fate.

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