The biggest knock on Tracy McGrady is that after 15 fruitful years in the NBA, which included seven All-Star appearances, two All-NBA First Team selections and two scoring titles, he never once led his team out of the first round of the playoffs. He had plenty of opportunities (seven to be exact), which is an accomplishment on its own, and to sweeten the blow a little the majority of those went down to the wire. Nevertheless, for someone who was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, never making it out of the opening round hurt his legacy in a big way.
A lot of that is overblown, though, because McGrady pulled more than his fair share of weight in most of those series. Take 2003 as an example: McGrady scored a total of 89 points in the Orlando Magic’s first two games against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons, giving them a 2-0 series lead. But after opening his mouth far too soon when they went up 3-1 — “It feels good to be in the second round” — Tayshaun Prince used his gangly arms to shut McGrady down, which, in turn, closed the door on the Magic’s near-historical run.
The Magic had no business being in that series and had it not been for McGrady’s brilliance, they wouldn’t have even won a game. He averaged 31.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, after all.
Four years later, as a member of the Houston Rockets, McGrady got a taste of the second round again before it was smacked out of his mouth. After splitting the first six games against the Utah Jazz, Deron Williams and company stole Game 7 on the road, in Houston, winning by four measly points despite Tracy McGrady’s best efforts — 29 points, 13 assists, five rebounds and three blocks. The following year, McGrady and the Rockets lost to the Jazz again, this time in six games. McGrady poured in 40 points and 10 rebounds in the penultimate game.
But amongst all that forgiveness, understanding and rationalising, there is one series that sticks out like a sore thumb, one that will forever haunt McGrady and his bid to get out of the first round. It was 2005, when the Houston Rockets lost to the Dallas Mavericks in seven games.
It was a weird series through-and-through. The Rockets snatched the first two games right out of the Mavericks’ back pocket, whooping their tails in Game 1 and putting their season on the line with a 113-111 victory in Game 2. In that second game, McGrady flirted with a triple double and played hero by knocking down the game-winning jumper over Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry in the closing seconds.
That moment right there should’ve been it. We should be able to look back at that shot, that game-winner, that snarl, and remember it as the moment that punched McGrady’s ticket into the second round and, in turn, put all the talk about him never making it to the conference semifinals to bed. The reason why: at that point in history, only two teams had ever come back from losing the first two games of the series at their home — the 1969 L.A. Lakers and the 1994 Houston Rockets.
But it didn’t happen. The Mavericks whittled off three straight victories by a combined margin of 11 points. Then they dropped one in Houston by 18 points, setting up a Game 7 in the American Airlines Center, but that game was a doozy with the Mavericks stomping all over the Rockets, winning by a final score of 116-76 — the largest margin of victory in Game 7 history.
In that game, Yao Ming was the star for the Rockets, putting up 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. Other than him, though, there wasn’t much going the Rockets’ way. Tracy McGrady scored 27 points, but it took him 26 shots to get there; he had seven assists, but that came with four turnovers. Outside of those two, the Rockets only scored 16 points. That’s all. On the other end, Jason Terry continued his rampage with 31 points, Josh Howard had a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Dirk Nowitzki, feeling a little under the weather, had a quiet 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Following the loss, a disgruntled McGrady talked to the media, via Houston Chronicle: “I’m disgusted. I’m real mad. I’m angry. All that stuff. At the same time, I won’t hang my head. I will be back next year. I will be back. This is all going to make me tougher. I never will fold. I’ll be back. My team will be back and we will come back stronger and better.”
He was right — he did bounce back and the Rockets did have a couple more opportunities to end their long playoff drought. But nothing stung more than that 2005 series. The Rockets should’ve won. They had it in the bag. It did, after all, take a historical run of wins for the Mavericks to advance to the next round, where they went on to lose in six games to the Phoenix Suns. And along the way, the dampened the legacy of one of the most gifted scorers the NBA has ever seen.
Editor’s Note: Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles) writes for Fansided’s Hardwood Paroxysm, SB Nation’s Ridiculous Upside and TrueHoop’s Magic Basketball. He got kicked in the face by Yao Ming once and lived to tell the tale. He’s easily a MUST follow on Twitter, so do it!