An injury-riddled career, but Tracy McGrady is back and helping the Hawks

Nick PoustCorrespondent IIJanuary 10, 2012

On December 9th, 2004, Tracy McGrady did something unbelievable. His Houston Rockets were down 76-68 to the San Antonio Spurs at home with 35 seconds remaining. Then they weren’t behind at all. McGrady’s 13-point performance over the final 35 seconds, capped off by a game-winning three after a steal, is etched into NBA lore and will never be forgotten. He won’t either, though his career hasn’t gone the way he planned.

McGrady, lanky and lazy-eyed, standing 6’8″, 225 pounds, was on the top of his game at the time of that amazing performance. He was in his first year with the Rockets after four incredibly productive albeit stressful seasons with the dismal Orlando Magic. Unlike in Orlando, where he was the offense, the gifted scorer had a respectable supporting cast that would consistently contend in a hotly contested Western Conference. And he flourished.

That first season in Houston, he played in 78 of 82 games and averaged 25 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game. He was only 25, yet already in his eighth NBA season. He was a high-flyer, soaring for effortless dunks. He would also launch from three-point range at will and take the most acrobatic twos. He had no conscience. His memory was short. He was given the green light and he didn’t disappoint. And he was one of the most electrifying players the game had to offer. Then, gradually, a once oh-so promising career of a seven-time All Star turned hard to watch.

This ensuing decline was in large part due to injuries. His back hampered him, then his knees did. He played in only 47 of 82 games in his second season with Houston, missed 12 more the next, was sidelined 16 more the next, and then, following arthroscopic knee surgery, he managed to appear in just 35 games in the 2006-2007 season and 32 in the 2007-2008 season.

Incredibly injury-prone and having lost a step or two, the man they call T-Mac wasn’t the same. He didn’t have nearly the same explosiveness. His production, not surprisingly, dipped. He was traded from Houston to New York in 2007. He wasn’t even a shell of his former self. He was a ghost. The Tracy McGrady of old had become a 29-year-old with a bum knee, dwindling confidence, a new climate, and a minimized role. There were rightfully questions as to what kind of impact he could make. The downfall, which was far from his fault, was saddening.

There was still hope. He didn’t give up. He was still out there trying to resurrect a career he never thought would need resurrecting. And he showed flashes of brilliance, as New York turned into Detroit, where he played in 72 games–the most since his first season with Houston. More than half of his appearances came as a starter, and overall he was a solid contributor. The pretty shot was still there.

He was still hesitant, though; by his play, it was clear he had undergone reconstructive knee surgery. He didn’t go after loose balls as urgently as he used to, nor could he come off screens as fast. He didn’t look confident going up for rebounds in traffic. He had his moments that flashed back to his hey-day, but all in all he just looked slow. He wasn’t the player who stunned San Antonio that December evening all those years ago.

He could have been so good. He is the typical “what if?” player. Just thinking about how much potential he had to be truly great made his days final years in Houston and his cups of coffee with the Knicks and Pistons so hard to watch.

He entered this past offseason without a team, then, two days before his seven-year anniversary of that magical game against San Antonio, he reached an agreement with the Atlanta Hawks. They knew losing sixth-man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford was a distinct possibility. They hoped McGrady, now 32 and a 14-year veteran, could fill his shoes. For the first time in many years, he felt healthy.

The shooting guard, who was named to seven consecutive all-star teams during his glorious yet shortened prime, is enjoying basketball again. He is pain-free and is making the most of his opportunity.

“It feels good,” McGrady told the Atlanta Journal-Constitutional. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling. My legs feel fresh. Everything just feels good. It feels right. That’s a good sign. I haven’t felt this good in a long time, probably since the beginning of my knee injury.”

Fittingly, he had a flashback to his hey-day. The 3-1 Hawks took on the 4-1 Miami Heat as the underdog playing on the road. The game was close early in the fourth. Then it wasn’t. McGrady came alive. He had a hand in 23 of Atlanta’s 33 fourth-quarter points, turning a 71-67 deficit into a 100-92 victory. He scored 13 of those. Six came on a pair of three-pointers off feeds from point-guard Jeff Teague to ice the win late.

In eight games this season, he is averaging nine points in 21 minutes, shooting 50 percent from the field. He has made five of six three-pointers, none bigger than the two daggers that sunk the Heat. He may not have the same hop in his step, but on that night he was the Tracy McGrady I remember–the player who had opposing coaches, including the Spurs’ Greg Poppovich on that December night, scratching their heads as if to say, ‘What can you do?’.  And he drew his fair share of praise.

“He’s been doing big things for us,” teammate Joe Johnson told Fox Sports South. “He made some clutch plays out there and did what a veteran like that is supposed to do. He made plays.”

“He played exceptionally well,” added Heat star forward LeBron James. “When you’re born a scorer, you’re always a scorer. No matter what may happen to athleticism or anything like that, he’s a natural born scorer and we saw that tonight.”

And, if he remains healthy, we’ll continue to see it. He didn’t have 13 points in 35 seconds again, but his 13 points in a quarter proved just how much he has left in the tank. And what he said following the win over the Rockets could have been said after his clutch play eight years later against the Heat:

“I was just trying to do whatever I could to get a shot up,” he told TNT’s Craig Sager after the 81-80 win over the Spurs. “My will just took over and it was knocking down shots for me. Anytime I got the ball in my hand and any room that I got to get off a shot, I was gonna let it go.”

Tracy McGrady may not be the player he once was or have had the career he and so many others envisioned, but the scoring mentality that made him so dangerous in his prime still makes him lethal. That may be enough for him, and it’s certainly enough for Atlanta.