McGrady aiming to lead Rockets on a deep playoff run

McGrady aiming to lead Rockets on a deep playoff run

Utah at Houston, Game 1, Saturday, 8:30 p.m.


Damien Pierce Staff Writer

Since entering the NBA straight out of high school in 1997, Tracy McGrady has never won a playoff series.

He's never had a better opportunity to change that history than now.

McGrady gets his latest opportunity to add postseason success to his impressive resume beginning Saturday when the Rockets open their best-of-seven series at home against Carlos Boozer and the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz.

The seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion is 0-for-5 in the first round, but he's never been in a better situation to advance. He's on a team with home-court advantage for the first time in his career and has never been surrounded by a more talented supporting cast.

McGrady is, for his part, confident that this could be the season that he leads a team on a deep postseason run.

"I'm extremely confident," McGrady said. "This is the first time that I'm on a team not just excited about being in the playoffs. I have a team that can get there and really take advantage of the opportunity."

The Rockets (52-30) are entering the playoffs as one of the league's best defensive teams.

They led the NBA in field-goal percentage defense (42.9 percent) and finished third in points allowed (92.1 points). Shane Battier is among the leading candidates for the NBA's All-Defensive team.

The Rockets also have enough options that the scoring burden won't fall entirely on McGrady's shoulders.

Yao Ming, the Rockets' leading scorer, is one of the league's most dominating big men and the team's collection of perimeter shooters established franchise records for three-pointers made (705) and three-point shooting percentage (37.2 percent) this season.

Is that enough to help McGrady and the Rockets make a deep run? Some of suggest that McGrady has more pressure on him than any other player in the postseason since elite players are judged by how far they can carry a team in the playoffs.

"There is more pressure on Tracy McGrady than any other player in the playoffs," TNT NBA studio analyst

Charles Barkley said. "If (the Rockets) don't get past the first round, there's not going to be a gorilla on his back, there is going to be a whole zoo."

Does Barkley's assessment bother McGrady? Not in the slightest.

He understands criticism comes with his star status and he isn't putting any extra pressure on himself.

McGrady even laughed at Barkley's remarks.

"I don't worry about that because it's a team sport," McGrady said. "I thought it was quite funny. I don't pay attention to Charles or what any of those guys say."

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said the burden of reaching any round of the playoffs doesn't fall entirely on McGrady and noted that criticism is going to be there regardless of what the Rockets star does or doesn't accomplish over the course of this postseason.

"I don't think it's on him alone," Van Gundy said. "We all share in the successes and failures. I don't think I would ever place when he's lost a playoff series that it's just on him nor would I place it on Barkley that he didn't win a championship. There's many factors going into it. I wouldn't share that opinion.

"I just think there will always be result and criticism in this business," Van Gundy added. "If McGrady wins first round this year and loses second round, the people say can't win in the second round. Win two rounds, then he couldn't win the third. Can't win three, then can't win four. Win the whole deal, then he didn't repeat. So criticism, you can't get away from it. So if you always play to answer your critics, you'll always be sadly disappointed because there are always more right around the corner."

McGrady hasn't played poorly in the postseason. Actually, he's played pretty darn well.

Since making his playoffs debut with Toronto in 2000, the Rockets star holds career averages of 29.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 25 playoff games. During his only playoff run with the Rockets in 2005, McGrady averaged a team-best 30.7 points. He netted 37 points in a Game 6 win over the Dallas Mavericks that forced Game 7.

Unfortunately, none of McGrady's team moved past the first round. Fair or not, all eyes will be on McGrady heading into these playoffs.

"I was always the underdog," McGrady said of his past teams. "I felt like it was a great accomplishment just to get to the playoffs and I don't feel that way this year. If things don't go the way we're hoping, it would definitely be a disappointing season."

McGrady has shown over and over again that he's more than capable of beating teams with more than his jumper. He is coming off one of his best all-around regular seasons with averages of 24.6 points and a career-best 6.5 assists.

During Yao's 32-game absence from Dec. 26 to March 3, McGrady guided the Rockets to a 20-12 record, averaging 28.1 points. He's even been mentioned as a possible MVP candidate.

"He knew what was at stake this year and that this was going to be a make or break year for a lot of us," Rockets point guard Rafer Alston said. "He's taken this team and put it on his shoulders."

McGrady isn't the only Rockets player to never advance beyond the first round. Yao hasn't done it and neither has Battier.

Who, in fact, are the only Rockets players to reach at least the second round? Juwan Howard, Dikembe Mutombo and Alston.

The focus, however, will be on McGrady. And he welcomes it.

"Having been there a few times, I know how fun it is," McGrady said. "I know that this is the best chance that I've ever had to do something in the playoffs. This is the first time that I've ever felt that way. It's just more motivation. This is where players make big names for themselves so I know how important it is. And that's what I'm going to do."