The year was 2004. Orlando shipped out Tracy McGrady at the height of his powers. After churning out two consecutive scoring titles, T-Mac was traded in a seven-player deal that sent Steve Francis, a star in his own right, out of Houston. He was aching to get out of his hometown of Orlando, tired of carrying a mediocre team and tired of exiting the playoffs early.
Now teamed up with Yao Ming, who was also entering his best years, McGrady and the Rockets were immediately catapulted to contender status in the Western Conference.
With their new tandem, Houston came out of the gate sluggish, however, and people started to wonder if this squad was as dangerous as many speculated. They opened the season winning just six out of 17 games, and were stuck in a five-game slide heading into a much needed homestand. Planted right in the middle of that span was a game against their interstate rival San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs came into the season fully expecting to take back the West. They ripped through the first month and a half of their schedule, entering the Toyota Center sporting a 16-4 record.
The game was nationally televised on TNT, with Kevin Harlan and Steve Kerr on the call. With the country watching, both sides shot poorly in the opening half and this ordinary regular season affair seemed to be nothing more than a potential playoff preview. The Rockets went into halftime leading by four, but fell behind in the third quarter and seemed to be down for the count after San Antonio went on a 15-2 run in the fourth.
Let’s set the scene…
The Spurs are sticking the final skewer in the Rockets on a reasonably warm December night in Texas. Tim Duncan hits a free throw to put San Antonio up 10 with just 62 seconds remaining. Sixty-two, the same number of points McGrady put up in his career game against the Wizards just a season before. Maybe it was a sign, a subtle omen that we were about to witness one of the most unthinkable comebacks in NBA history.
The score was 74-64 in favor of the Spurs. The majority of fans had already headed for the parking lot, because let’s admit it, the game was over. A team coached by Popovich and spearheaded by three future Hall of Famers was not going to relinquish this lead. It just wasn’t going to happen.
The Rockets were shooting just 31 percent on the game leading up to this point. They had only hit one three-pointer in ten attempts. Just chalk this loss up to a bad shooting night against a good team and be happy you didn’t get blown out. It was as simple as that.
But no, McGrady and the Rockets had other plans. It was time to turn the heat up a notch.
On the ensuing possession, T-Mac drives the lane without hesitation and forces up a tough floater. It doesn’t fall, but Yao is there to clean up the miss and cut the lead to eight, padding some stats in the process. Score: 74-66.
Aww, cute, Houston is going to pressure the inbounds play. I guess you always have to play hard until the end right? They trap Tony Parker in the corner, forcing an errant pass. Rockets reserve forward Scott Padgett (never thought I’d be saying his name again), takes advantage of the situation and intercepts the ball, following it up with a one-handed jam. Score: 74-68.
At this point, you may have a bit of an inkling that something may be going on. San Antonio takes a timeout to get settled. They still hold the game tightly in their hands. Remember, it’s the Spurs. Popovich demands consistency, teamwork and smart play.
After Manu Ginobili nearly throws the ball away on the next inbounds play, the Spurs’ Devin Brown was able to grab the ball. McGrady commits the anticipated foul and Brown connects on both attempts from the line. The camera pans to an angry Popovich, who directs his frustrations towards Ginobili. The Spurs are getting a little sloppy, but they still seem in full control. Score: 76-68, 44 seconds left. Game over, right?
Oh, we’re just getting started.