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 lose."
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 post-seasons (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 down-court 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?"