MIAMI (NYT) - Tracy McGrady's sleepy eyes always belied his explosive first step and premier skills. But injury and erosion awakened him to the fickle realities of fate and left observers wondering if the eyes have turned from sleepy to sad.
McGrady, 34, would most likely have been in decline at this point in his prep-to-pro career no matter what, having entered the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1997. But would the drop have been so precipitous that McGrady, finally on the grandest stage after continual post-season failure, would be a last-resort sub?
A seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion, he gets to play the leading man now only in practice, simulating LeBron James for the San Antonio Spurs in preparation for defending James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
"Just facilitate the way he does," McGrady, a late-season Spurs signee, said before the Heat evened the series with a 103-84 Game Two victory on Sunday night. "He has a great IQ for the game and a great eye for picking apart defences, attacking at the right moments. That's pretty much what LeBron does and what I was accustomed to doing."
McGrady and the Spurs must have done something right in practice because they contained James in one of the tamest halves of his play-off career. But James began cooking late in the third quarter, the facilitator in full gear. He picked apart San Antonio's defence as the Heat turned a close game into a rout, and he finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three blocked shots and three steals.
Even at his best McGrady was never quite James' equal in impact on a team or stature in the sport. He came into the NBA as a skinny teenager soon to be compared with Scottie Pippen as a shutdown defender. As time went on, he became more known for his scoring and was criticised for not carrying a single team beyond the first round of the play-offs.
His convincing argument is it was seldom, perhaps never, his fault. When McGrady left Toronto for Orlando to be part of a star medley, Grant Hill could not stay healthy. Tim Duncan changed his mind about leaving the Spurs. In Houston, where McGrady was matched with Yao Ming, both had crippling injuries.
"What ifs?" he said. "That's what you can put on my career."
At the finals, it is as if McGrady stepped into an alternative universe of what might have been. Asked if it was a frustrating twist to a career turned upside down, he said: "It is. But I think what I've gone through the last couple of years has prepared me mentally for not having my number called, if it doesn't get called."
Playing the final eight minutes of a blow-out was not what he had in mind, but McGrady did close the game when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled his starters to retrench for Game Three in San Antonio on Tuesday night. He had two rebounds, two assists, a blocked shot. For what it was worth, he was part of finals history, a long way from where he was months ago.
After a severe knee injury with Houston five years ago, he bounced around the league and finally out this season, all the way to Asia, where he averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists for Qingdao of the Chinese Basketball Association. He went there not as a means of career preservation but more as a forum for self-identification.
Level of play notwithstanding, he wanted to again feel like himself.
"Having the ball in my hands, making exciting plays - China gave me that back, to be able to be celebrated in the fashion that I'm accustomed to being celebrated on the basketball court," he said.
On the subject of the draft, he supported a change in the rules, increasing the current ban on high school players from one year to two.
"When I first came in, I mean, you still had MJ (Michael Jordan) and them guys in the game," he said, while owning up to the contradiction of his position. "You played with men. Now it's a bunch of boys."