Posted Dec 8 2010 3:33PM
HOUSTON -- The arena was largely empty, just like their time as teammates.
Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were together once more for the same game, yet on different teams and no farther away from those championship fantasies.
Then again, they never were that close.
In 5 1/2 seasons as Houston teammates, McGrady and Yao were the proverbial glass half-full of promise and half-empty of tangible results.
"Good, bad, what could have been, what should have been," McGrady said. "I have those thoughts all the time."
"There are no ifs," Yao said. "There has never been an if. You can never look back and say if or what we could be with a different result."
When McGrady arrived in Houston in 2004, it was supposed to become a new golden era for the Rockets with the two-time former scoring champion joining forces with a young and towering 7-foot-6 center to break down opponents and barriers.
But what usually broke down was one of their bodies or the other -- and sometimes their ability to finish in the playoffs -- which left season after season in pieces.
"I want to know who they're blaming around here now?" McGrady asked. "Because I'm gone."
But he was clearly not forgotten as a shower of boos greeted McGrady upon entering the game with 3:55 left in the first quarter. It was hardly the venom of LeBron James returning to Cleveland; more disdain and distaste for the way he eventually parted company with the Rockets nearly 10 months ago.
Individually, they often starred. Collectively they made eight All-Star appearances in their time together. Yao became a consistent force in the middle. McGrady performed amazing singular feats, most notably the 13-points-in-35-seconds-miracle on Dec. 12, 2004 that beat the Spurs and is still a YouTube classic.
Yet this dynamic duo too often managed to generate team efforts that were less than the sum of their parts. If accomplished pairings as Karl Malone and John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston, Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp or Julius Erving and George McGinnis had gaping holes in their resumes for having never won a championship, at least they all reached The Finals. McGrady and Yao are the Grand Canyon of unfulfillment, never winning a single playoff series while working together.
"When Tracy came here, of course, [it was] not just people talking about it, but we truly believe it," Yao said. "We can win a championship together. At that time he is amazing and a huge talent and already everybody in this league knows that he can do everything on the court. I am at my third year when he comes, about going to reach my peak. Why not?"
Should they have won more and won big?
"We didn't," Yao said. "That's the end."
The T-Mac and Yao Rockets could never gather traction due to a seemingly endless string of injuries to feet, knees, ankles, backs and shoulders. Of the 463 regular season games for which they were teammates, Yao missed 146 due to injury and McGrady 160.
"Myself, Yao, not being able to live up to your full potential with each other," McGrady said, wistfully shaking his head. "As long as I'm healthy and I'm content with what I accomplished in this league, that's all that really matters. You've got a lot of great players in this league that didn't get a crack at a championship."
Trouble is, McGrady and Yao never even got within shouting distance. McGrady is the only scoring champion in the history of the NBA to never win a playoff series. The greatest team accomplishment during their era in Houston was the 22-game winning streak -- second-longest in NBA history -- from January to March of 2008. But even that accomplishment came with a dark cloud, since Yao suffered a broken foot that ended his season in Game 12 of the streak and ended real hope of postseason success.
"On the NBA calendar it's five years [together], but I think it's only 2 1/2," Yao said. "You know what I mean?"
In their initial season together, the Rockets were up 2-0 in their first playoff sereis against Dallas. They then proceeded to blow the lead and the series, getting thumped by 40 points in Game 7.
In 2007, the Rockets held first-round leads of 2-0 and 3-2 over Utah, but lost Game 7 at home and the series to the Jazz. In 2008, they dropped the first two home games of the series and were beaten by the Jazz in six.
"I think we didn't finish what we should have finished at the end," Yao said. "But I have to say that still I enjoyed playing [with] him."
Ironically, the only time the Rockets won a series when they were teammates, McGrady watched from the bench as they beat the Blazers, his season over due to microfracture knee surgery. And in the second round, Yao went down with a broken foot in Game 2 and the Rockets pushed the eventual champion Lakers to the seven-game limit without either of their stars.
"If we're not both hurt and we pass Lakers, that was the year," Yao said. "That's a good memory, but we have to be looking forward. Looking back makes you feel old."
"It's frustrating because I look back on the year that I got hurt, the year we added Ron [Artest]," McGrady said. "I felt like that was a championship team. If you look at what they accomplished in the playoffs that year -- taking the Lakers to seven games without Yao and myself -- I felt like that was the year. And who knows what might have happened after that if we would have kept the team moving forward, if I was healthy, if Yao was healthy. I mean, who knows."
What did happen was Yao sat out the entire 2009-10 season following reconstructive foot surgery and has played in just five games this season after injuring his ankle. McGrady created ill will in Houston at this time last year by trying to rush his own rehabilitation and force his way back into the lineup. That eventually brought about the Feb. 18 trade to New York and now he's a bit player and trying to find his way back to prominence with a body that, at 31, is reluctant to cooperate. He handled the ball, dished out passes for three assists and scored 11 points in 23 minutes of a return that had all the fire and emotion of a Tuesday night Bingo! game at the local firehouse.
It was far less emotional than McGrady's other returns to previous teams.
"Orlando was bad, but the first trip back to Toronto was actually worse," he said. "That was something to talk about. That trip back there was bad.
"Whatever I did for them when I played here, if they enjoyed me when I suited up that night, OK. If they didn't, whatever they feel. It is what it is."
But the tale of Yao and T-Mac will always be what it wasn't.
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