In 10th season, McGrady sees best chance to win in playoffs

In 10th season, McGrady sees best chance to win in playoffs

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By CHRIS DUNCAN AP Sports Writer

HOUSTON (AP) -- Tracy McGrady knows he's never had a better chance to win a postseason series.

The seven-time All-Star enters his sixth postseason on Saturday when the Houston Rockets open their series with Utah. The Rockets have the best record (52-30) of any team McGrady has played for in 10 seasons and, for the first time in his career, McGrady's team has the home-court advantage.

"This is my first year in the playoffs that I feel like something good is going to really come out of it," he said. "All the other years, I was just happy to get there. I'm expecting more this year."

Houston watchers are expecting more from McGrady and the team.

"There is more pressure on Tracy McGrady than any other player in the playoffs," said former Rocket and TNT analyst Charles Barkley. "If they (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."

McGrady has missed more than 40 games in the past two years with back spasms. Even though he found a specialist in December who helped him, he's played the last few weeks like his career was about to end.

He averaged 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the five straight victories leading up to Wednesday's season-ending 101-91 loss to Utah, which he sat out.

On Monday, McGrady had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in Houston's 120-117 win over Phoenix, a game the Rockets needed to clinch home-court advantage against the Jazz. It was the Rockets' 15th win in their last 20 games.

"I know how important it is for a team to be playing extremely well going into the playoffs," McGrady said. "That's why I wanted to take my game to another level, let these guys know that what you've seen for the previous 70-whatever games, it's not going to be like that no more. It's going to be all-out, whatever it takes to win ballgames."

Teammates have noticed a sense of urgency from McGrady off the floor, too.

Point guard Rafer Alston said McGrady delivered an out-of-character pep talk on the bus ride to the airport on April 7, before Houston started a pivotal three-game road trip.

"He said, 'We need to win this road trip,"' Alston said. "He didn't want us to rely on the Jazz losing, that we needed to take care of it. It was a little shocking, but it was like, hey, he really understands what's needed and what we need to do."

The next day in Sacramento, McGrady scored 40 points and dished out 10 assists to lead the Rockets to a 112-106 victory. The Rockets won in Seattle and Portland, too, with McGrady scoring 27 in the first game and 32 in the other.

"He's ramping up. He knows what this time's about," said forward Shane Battier. "You can see it. He doesn't just want to win one series. He wants to win big."

McGrady was drafted by Toronto in 1997, and he and the Raptors made their postseason debut in 2000. Toronto was swept in the first round by New York and Jeff Van Gundy, who now coaches the Rockets.

Despite the quick exit, the first playoff experience stuck with McGrady and still motivates him now.

"This is when the fun really begins," he said. "I can remember playing against the Knicks and not really knowing what to expect. Once I got a taste of the playoffs, I was just eager to get back every year."

McGrady was traded to Orlando in 2000 and led the Magic to three straight postseasons -- and three straight first-round exits. He took note when he began carrying the label of a highly skilled scorer who couldn't elevate the players around him.

"My whole career, my game was based on being an all-around player," McGrady said. "When I went to Orlando, I was put in a situation where I had to score, where I had to carry the load. It kind of had my critics not realize how great of an all-around player I was in terms of making my teammates better, creating shots for everybody."

McGrady led the league in scoring again in 2003-04, but the Magic finished 21-61 and he was traded to Houston.

He joined Yao Ming and the All-Star duo led the Rockets to the playoffs in 2005, where they lost to Dallas in seven games. McGrady scored 27 points in Game 7, but the Mavs won 116-76.

The Rockets are a more complete team now, with Yao leading a group of reliable scorers that McGrady has learned to trust. For the first time in his career, McGrady leads a playoff-bound team in assists (a career-high 6.5 per game).

Yao is Houston's leading scorer, averaging 25 points, just ahead of McGrady's 24.6. The Rockets also have capable 3-point shooters in Alston, Battier and Luther Head. And often when McGrady gets double-teamed, he finds Chuck Hayes or Juwan Howard open for easy baskets.

"I always look back on teams I've been on and I was always the underdog," McGrady said. "I felt like it was a great accomplishment just to get to the playoffs. 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."

And McGrady knows most of the pressure is on him.

"This is where players make names for themselves," he said. "If you can take your game and your team to the next level, I know how important it is. That's what I'm doing."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-04-19-07 1022MDT

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