The year was 2004. Orlando shipped out Tracy McGrady at the height of his powers. After churning out two consecutive scoring titles, T-Mac was traded in a seven-player deal that sent Steve Francis, a star in his own right, out of Houston. He was aching to get out of his hometown of Orlando, tired of carrying a mediocre team and tired of exiting the playoffs early.
Now teamed up with Yao Ming, who was also entering his best years, McGrady and the Rockets were immediately catapulted to contender status in the Western Conference.
With their new tandem, Houston came out of the gate sluggish, however, and people started to wonder if this squad was as dangerous as many speculated. They opened the season winning just six out of 17 games, and were stuck in a five-game slide heading into a much needed homestand. Planted right in the middle of that span was a game against their interstate rival San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs came into the season fully expecting to take back the West. They ripped through the first month and a half of their schedule, entering the Toyota Center sporting a 16-4 record.
The game was nationally televised on TNT, with Kevin Harlan and Steve Kerr on the call. With the country watching, both sides shot poorly in the opening half and this ordinary regular season affair seemed to be nothing more than a potential playoff preview. The Rockets went into halftime leading by four, but fell behind in the third quarter and seemed to be down for the count after San Antonio went on a 15-2 run in the fourth.
Let’s set the scene…
The Spurs are sticking the final skewer in the Rockets on a reasonably warm December night in Texas. Tim Duncan hits a free throw to put San Antonio up 10 with just 62 seconds remaining. Sixty-two, the same number of points McGrady put up in his career game against the Wizards just a season before. Maybe it was a sign, a subtle omen that we were about to witness one of the most unthinkable comebacks in NBA history.
The score was 74-64 in favor of the Spurs. The majority of fans had already headed for the parking lot, because let’s admit it, the game was over. A team coached by Popovich and spearheaded by three future Hall of Famers was not going to relinquish this lead. It just wasn’t going to happen.
The Rockets were shooting just 31 percent on the game leading up to this point. They had only hit one three-pointer in ten attempts. Just chalk this loss up to a bad shooting night against a good team and be happy you didn’t get blown out. It was as simple as that.
But no, McGrady and the Rockets had other plans. It was time to turn the heat up a notch.
On the ensuing possession, T-Mac drives the lane without hesitation and forces up a tough floater. It doesn’t fall, but Yao is there to clean up the miss and cut the lead to eight, padding some stats in the process. Score: 74-66.
Aww, cute, Houston is going to pressure the inbounds play. I guess you always have to play hard until the end right? They trap Tony Parker in the corner, forcing an errant pass. Rockets reserve forward Scott Padgett (never thought I’d be saying his name again), takes advantage of the situation and intercepts the ball, following it up with a one-handed jam. Score: 74-68.
At this point, you may have a bit of an inkling that something may be going on. San Antonio takes a timeout to get settled. They still hold the game tightly in their hands. Remember, it’s the Spurs. Popovich demands consistency, teamwork and smart play.
After Manu Ginobili nearly throws the ball away on the next inbounds play, the Spurs’ Devin Brown was able to grab the ball. McGrady commits the anticipated foul and Brown connects on both attempts from the line. The camera pans to an angry Popovich, who directs his frustrations towards Ginobili. The Spurs are getting a little sloppy, but they still seem in full control. Score: 76-68, 44 seconds left. Game over, right?
Oh, we’re just getting started.
McGrady hustles the ball over the midcourt line, hounded by the defensive stud Bruce Bowen the whole way down the floor. His teammate sets a high pick to give him just enough time to launch a three over an outstretched hand. It falls, and suddenly things get a little interesting. You can hear a little more excitement in Harlan’s voice, and the crowd is starting to look over their shoulders as they head up the stairs out of their section. Score: 76-71, 35 seconds remaining.
Another intentional foul and two more free throws for the Spurs, so their lead now sits at seven with half a minute to go. T-Mac again hurries the ball up, Bowen again badgering him and not letting up any easy shots. Yao takes Bowen out of the play on a nice screen, and Duncan rotates to guard McGrady on the perimeter. He up-fakes, drawing the usually patient Duncan to go for the block, and then hocks up another three. T-Mac leans back, willing the ball into the basket. Nothing but net, and draws the foul.
The energy in the arena is palpable. The camera cuts to Duncan, and you can just see the irritation in his eyes as he hears his name called by the PA announcer. McGrady sinks the free throw, and it’s now a one possession game. Fans that left the game are now questioning their motives. Score: 78-75, 24 seconds left.
San Antonio wisely inbounds the ball in the backcourt, trying to tick valuable seconds off the clock. Duncan is eventually fouled with just 16 seconds remaining. He hits both, and the Spurs are still feeling like they’ll walk away from this with the W despite a minor scare at the end.
The Rockets take a timeout to draw up a play, but when it comes time to inbound the ball, Andre Barrett can’t find anyone open. Just as it seems the referee is going to peg Barrett for a five-second violation, the guard forces a short lob up to McGrady. Again, Bowen tries to stop him, but he didn’t bring his fire extinguisher along. T-Mac throws up another prayer over the defender, and somehow, someway, it finds the bottom of the nylon for a third-straight trifecta. Score: 80-78, 11 seconds left.
The Spurs use their final timeout to calm everyone down and make sure they don’t do anything stupid on the next possession. Unfortunately, Devin Brown didn’t get the message. After Brent Barry finds a way to get the ball past Yao on the inbounds and into Brown’s hands, the guy who was having a career night (20 points off the bench and clutch FTs down the stretch) gets trapped in the corner. He tries to spin out of a double team and drive baseline, but his foot slips and he falls to floor. The ball rolls right into the hands of our hero.
There’s seven seconds left. The Rockets have no more timeouts. Tracy McGrady is fully aware of the situation. Nothing can stop him at this point. He sprints down the court with the ball at his side. In the most brazen way imaginable, he picks up his dribble at the top of the arc. Without hesitation, T-Mac fires up one last three, defenders trying to halt an inevitable moment. Time almost freezes as Harlan roars, “McGrady, for the win…”
Unfathomable, unimaginable, unthinkable, every un- you can think of. The final minute was something out of Hollywood. It’s the kind of moment you think up in your driveway, hitting fadeaways on an eight-foot basket. Tracy McGrady wasn’t thinking tie at all. He knew it was time to end this thing.
This meant more than just another win for the Rockets. It introduced T-Mac to his new city. It helped jumpstart a turnaround that would lead them to the playoffs. It provided Houston fans — hell, any basketball fan — with one of the most memorable comebacks in NBA history. Thirteen points in 35 seconds. That’s why we reminisce.
Where would you rate this among the greatest individual performances ever?
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