Tracy McGrady was drafted at 18, got traded and promptly became
the star of his hometown team at 21, had a nine-figure sneaker
deal at 22, won a scoring title (this season) at 23, and sometime
during that stretch learned the fine points of diplomacy that
make him a media and fan favorite. But with precocious success
comes premature responsibility, and so McGrady entered the fourth
playoff series of his NBA career on Sunday bearing the burden of
being his team's lone star, what he calls "the Kevin Garnett
thing." ¬∂ Judging by his performance in Game 1 of the Orlando
Magic's first-round Eastern Conference series at Detroit,
however, McGrady may be able to shake that thing. As usual, he
filled up the box score, finishing with 43% of the Magic's points
and 99% of its pulse-raising plays, including an Ervingesque
reverse layup and a lefthanded finish of an alley-oop pass that
appeared to be headed for the 14th row. The upshot was a
character-testing 99-94 victory by the No. 8 seed over the No.
1-seeded, defensive-minded Pistons in the packed and clamorously
partisan Palace at Auburn Hills. "I don't know whether we got it
done because of youthful exuberance or youthful ignorance," said
Magic coach Doc Rivers, "but that was the kind of game we used to
McGrady, who had 17 of his 43 points in the fourth quarter, just
wouldn't let that happen. After Detroit cut a double-digit
deficit to one point with 11:36 to play, McGrady scored the next
12 on two drives, a three-point bomb, an 18-footer and three free
throws. And when the Pistons again closed the gap to one, McGrady
got to the line with 46.5 seconds left, ignored the jawboning of
Pistons guard Chauncey Billups ("Never even heard him," said
T-Mac) and buried the two foul shots that enabled Orlando to hold on.
McGrady's was one of five prodigious Game 1 scoring outbursts
last weekend, each of which yielded a victory: 55 points by the
Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson in a 98-90 win over the New
Orleans Hornets, 46 by the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki in a
96-86 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, 40 by the Boston
Celtics' Paul Pierce in a 103-100 win over the Indiana Pacers and
39 by the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant in a 117-98 win over
the Minnesota Timberwolves. "No matter what anybody says, the
playoffs are about offense, not defense," says former Detroit
center Bill Laimbeer, now the team's TV analyst. "Everybody in
the playoffs plays defense, so the teams that are in trouble are
the teams that don't have scorers."
None of those scoring binges came as effortlessly as the 6'8"
McGrady's--or seemed to promise as clearly that there was a lot
more where that came from. After T-Mac scored 52 points in 33
minutes against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 21, the conclusion on
the Magic bench was that he would have finished with 80 had he
been given his usual playing time. Said Pistons coach Rick
Carlisle, who sicced a variety of defenders (Michael Curry,
Corliss Williamson, Jon Barry and Clifford Robinson) on McGrady
in Game 1, "Arguably, he's the best player on the planet."
But it remains for McGrady to push his team further down the
playoff road. T-Mac has observed Garnett's Sisyphean postseasons
(the T-Wolves' home-court loss hinted at a seventh straight
first-round exit) and has no desire to be KG's partner in misery.
Figuring out how to avoid that is the tricky part. McGrady knows
he has to score big but at the same time make his teammates
better (that most mysterious of NBA feats) and also be one of the
guys (essential on a team so dominated by one player).
How does he pull that off? Here's how:
--T-Mac gets his teammates open looks. Detroit prefers not to
double-team, but several times on Sunday, Orlando point guard
Darrell Armstrong found himself so unguarded that he seemed
startled. "Those big jumpers he hit down the stretch came because
Tracy was on the floor," Rivers said.
--T-Mac knows when to give it up, which is why he averaged 5.5
assists in addition to his 32.1 points a game. Steaming downcourt
in the second quarter, McGrady could have elevated for a circus
slam but judiciously found rookie forward Drew Gooden (18 points,
14 rebounds) for a dunk.
--T-Mac works on his game. McGrady spent countless summer hours
improving his long-range accuracy, mixing in jump-roping drills
with three-point shooting, and as a result hit 173 treys this
season, 70 more than in 2001-02. "Leave him alone, he kills you
from 25 feet," says Orlando assistant coach Dave Wohl. "Chase him
out there, he goes by you. What do you do?"
--T-Mac takes crap from the coach, just like everybody else. "Maybe
more than everybody else," says Rivers. After Gooden threw away a
third-quarter inbounds pass, Rivers stamped his feet and shouted,
"T-Mac, you gotta move!" Rivers was right, and McGrady knew
it--he hadn't given Gooden a passing angle. With about four
minutes left, McGrady let Williamson sneak behind him for a layup
and Rivers again shouted at him. Chastened, McGrady softly banked
in an angle jumper at the other end, and, as he ran upcourt, held
his palms up and looked at Rivers as if to say, O.K., we even now?
Still, McGrady is not much for false modesty. He knows how good
he's been this season and made his MVP choice clear. "KG has
another All-Star, Wally Szczerbiak," McGrady said before Game 1.
"Tim [Duncan] and Kobe are dominant players on dominant
teams--they could win it every year. But with what I accomplished
individually and for my team, I think I deserve it."
The votes are in, and odds are he won't win it, but he certainly
made a compelling case for his value on Sunday.
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