Houston Rockets-Detroit Pistons Match a Fitting Reminder of Yao-McGrady Agony

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IDecember 8, 2010

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 03:  Tracy McGrady #1 of the Detroit Pistons against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 3, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

T-Mac came back and went to the rack.

He fumbled a pass that he could have turned into a layup and instead drove for two free throws. Years ago, Tracy McGrady might have exploded to the rim for a dunk.

The Toyota Center crowd did not erupt into a wash of degrading and mean-spirited chants. Rockets fans, instead, booed early and then switched to a funeral-like silence. The flags just outside the arena flew at half mast to honor the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, but they also could have bewailed a partnership that promised to deliver Houston multiple championships.

Cleveland supporters endured "The Decision" this summer and suffered through The Rollover on Thursday. Houstonians, then, witnessed "The Reminder" when the Detroit Pistons and Rockets clashed Tuesday night.

LeBron James at least showed his jilted hometown fanbase what it once enjoyed 41 times a year with 38 points in a commanding performance. Clevelanders could reminisce about the self-proclaimed King's one-man demolition in a pivotal playoff game at the Palace of Auburn Hills, his game-winner against the Orlando Magic and his numerous triple-doubles that seemed like cakewalks to him. James pushed the Cavaliers to unprecedented heights and brought the team national recognition and adoration.

Tuesday night, Rockets fans could only lament what never was. McGrady's best highlights: a dunk on Shawn Bradley in a series Houston would choke away after a 2-0 lead, one triple-double and a meaningless scoring feat against the eventual champion in 2005.

Yao's résumé boasts a playoff series win but much more heartbreak and a body that breaks more often than soaked bamboo. Was there a more fitting way to remember this snake-bit, underachieving duo than with McGrady hobbling around, excuses in tow and Yao in a sports coat?

The Rockets whacked the deplorable Pistons 97-83 and recorded a much-needed eighth win. The final score was never going to headline this affair, no matter how much the organization hoped it would. McGrady dropped 11 points, three assists and grabbed three rebounds, but his trademark, effortless scoring ways left NBA arenas a few years ago. He labors now, and the pain shows for this 31-year-old All-Star turned vagabond.

The 7-15 Pistons' rapid descent into basketball abyss serves as a perfect metaphor for McGrady's own torpedoed career. From a scoring champ to a wrecked man incapable of converting easy hoops at the basket on many nights. McGrady looks nothing like the gifted athlete that used to make a 30-point outing look easier than putting on socks and shoes.

He mustered all the energy he could against the Rockets, just as he did last season when facing them with the Knicks, but his days of dazzling and power dunking seem long gone.

The Rockets expected to return to the 50-win club and the postseason after a 42-40 finish, but Yao's comeback attempt ended with a sprained left ankle in Washington. His strict 24-minute restriction left the rest of the team discombobulated and desperate for some continuity.

The 7'6" center was supposed to return two weeks after his setback, according to team officials, but almost six weeks in, he remains the NBA's tallest spectator. Yao circled Tuesday's game as a target date. Rick Adelman and the medical staff scratched it. No timetable for his recompense makes sense, given that incertitude defines his crippled tenure.

GM Daryl Morey has continued to build his rosters around Yao, even though he creates a shaky foundation at best. Will he play again in another two weeks? Three? Who knows? In his October cameos, Yao was far from the dominant interior presence of two years ago. He clanged chip shots, struggled to secure gimme rebounds and lacked any sense of rhythm.

Yao blocked a few layups and even a dunk, but Adelman wrestled with how best to utilize his still recuperating star center within the non-negotiable constraints. The Rockets need a Yao that no one is sure will ever come back. Those who have admired his work ethic and his dogmatism hope for the best, but even they know his extended stint as a suit model does nothing to mute the franchise's ear-splitting alarm system.

James did not fulfill his oath to bring a title to Cleveland, but he carried the Cavaliers beyond the velvet rope to the doorstep. Yao and McGrady did not come close to shaking the bouncer. One or the other missed more than 50 percent of their games. A starting lineup that included both stars was a rarity. They teased and tormented. The fans begged and borrowed faith.

McGrady's introductory press conference will live in infamy. How fitting, then, that he dressed in the Toyota Center visitor's locker room Dec. 7. "Something special is gonna' happen," he barked in 2004.

He poured in 13 points in 35 seconds to sink the San Antonio Spurs in the 2004-2005 season. The rampage continued until the Dallas Mavericks handed the Rockets a 40-point Game Seven defeat and reality check. His jaw-dropping talent opened eyes and hundreds of thousands of mouths, but physical ability was not McGrady's frailty.

Fans wondered about the pulse of his ticker, and worried about the thinking device in his skull. The legacy of this misguided romance was destined to become one of unfulfilled prophecy and wasted potential from the start. The Rockets divorced McGrady the moment they won a postseason round in his absence, but they have missed his special faculties since. Tuesday confirmed both the necessity and wretchedness of the annulment.

GM Daryl Morey, Adelman and Owner Leslie Alexander cheered for McGrady's return from microfracture surgery because kind-hearted people wish for such things, but they also knew the scarcity of superstar-caliber specimens made him an asset.

The Rockets continue to surface at the forefront of trade rumors involving Carmelo Anthony and other supposed disgruntled stars because Morey knows this roster, as constructed, will not reach the promised land. McGrady was supposed to carry Houston back to the perch Hakeem Olajuwon's squads occupied twice in the mid-90s.

Teams win titles with Hall of Fame players, or in the case of the 2004 Pistons, incredible chemistry and the right talent mix. The Rockets boast neither. The chemistry shines on some nights, but Morey's collection of talent is far from faultless.

Kyle Lowry, a career 27-percent three-point shooter, has drilled 11-of-18 from beyond the arc in December. Should Adelman hope this trend continues, and can his squad approach .500 if it does? History says Lowry should stick to bombarding the basket and making plays, but the absence of a McGrady-like talent has forced Adelman to embrace a bombs-away philosophy.

Aaron Brooks will beef up the available firepower as soon as this Friday, but he will need time, just like Yao, to work himself back into the lineup and re-adjust to the NBA's rigors.

Kevin Martin scored 21 points against the Pistons, but that franchise player, superstar moxie does not exist in his DNA. The Rockets need the real Batman. Martin is an efficient impostor with a defective cape. He responds to the Bat Signal on some nights and hibernates on others. He might flourish as a second or third option, but he's no Kobe Bryant.

Little comes easy for the Rockets' offense. Players get easy baskets when they can run, but many half-court possessions become a race against the clock. Lowry beat the 24-second buzzer with a triple Tuesday, and it added to the established pattern of tough buckets.

Luis Scola notched 35 points and 12 rebounds. The Rockets would crash and burn sans his refuse-to-lose mentality, but he was not built to carry an offense for 82 games.

McGrady was. In his prime years, he scored at will, from wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He did not need to supply his best effort every minute, because he was talented enough. He dished dimes when no one else saw an opening. Stars manufacture easy baskets for teammates and themselves.

The Rockets have been burned so many times this season by the kind of performer Morey knows he needs to fetch, from Dirk Nowitzki, to Manu Ginobili, to Derrick Rose, to Anthony. McGrady's somber retreat again brought the issue to the forefront.

Alexander invested hundreds of millions in the Yao-McGrady experiment only to watch his exorbitant concoction fail. He called McGrady a "superstar" even after his career-threatening surgery and pledged whatever funds necessary to help Morey snatch the missing pieces.

The owner's undeserved payback was clear, as the Rockets dispatched the Pistons with a late run: an arena three-fourths full, at best, and a Little-Engine-That-Could team that must exceed expectations to earn its praise. Most squads that "exceed expectations" lose in the first or second round. That is not Alexander's goal. It isn't Morey's goal. It isn't Adelman's goal.

So, the Rockets abused McGrady whenever they could isolate him, but the veterans had to do so with heavy hearts and conflicting emotions. Yao watched the carnage from the sidelines, with no one certain when he might rejoin the recent merriment.

The Rockets won their fourth consecutive home date and inched closer to .500, a commendable venture overshadowed by McGrady. He tended to dominate the discourse when he was here. The erosion of his natural gifts is obvious to those not clinging to YouTube videos and archived images.

For one night, it was difficult not to understand and mourn the consequences of McGrady's debilitated state. He sucked the gravity out of some gyms. Injuries brought him back to earth, where leaving the ground has become a nightly chore.

Manu Ginobili is playing the finest basketball of his career at 33. Kobe Bryant, in his early 30s, snagged a Finals MVP in June. Kevin Garnett still bumps his chest, roars and alters shots at 35.

Yet, this 31-year-old shell of a former star averages 15-16 minutes on a team lousy enough to make him useful. Rip Hamilton was ejected from the game. He just wishes Joe Dumars would toss him from Detroit to a winning program. Ditto for Tayshaun Prince.

The scene Tuesday was nothing like Cleveland a week earlier. Fans packed the Q and yelled "a**hole" and "Akron hates you!" The noise level was apparent even on my TV.

Some observers described McGrady's reception as rude, but the environment was far from hostile. James dumped the Cavaliers on national television and took his "talents to South Beach." The Rockets dumped McGrady because various ailments had zapped his awesome talent. There wasn't much left for him to take to New York and Detroit.

Donnie Walsh coveted him as an expiring contract and one more way to James' heart. Dumars viewed McGrady as a cheap addition with the potential to surprise. If he had tried and tolerated A.I., why not T-Mac?

Clevelanders endured The Decision and watched their wannabe scrappy squad roll over when his highness returned as an opponent. Rockets witnessed an event almost as horrific and painful.

Yes, Tuesday marked The Reminder, and the Rockets unintentionally commemorated a limp, dissolved union in the perfect way: Yao sat on the bench in a sports coat. McGrady scored the 11 least explosive points of his pro tenure, with his mind refusing to succumb to the limits imposed by his ailing, aching body.

Houston had seen this before and now could only lament what never was. McGrady and Yao once stood tall as the tandem the city needed to recapture the glory of the Olajuwon days.

"Believe me, something special is gonna' happen here in Houston," McGrady said with a defiance, as if he was already preparing then for the backlash that would accompany the misadventures of first-round exits.

Believing McGrady and believing in him became an impossible task for many Rockets fans and organization employees. He's gone, but the memory of what he could have done with Yao will not soon leave.

The flags outside the Toyota Center flew at half mast. Crews will raise them up today. Morey must wait for another superstar talent to promise special things and do the same for the franchise.

The Rockets, like T-Mac, could use some lift.


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