Still-rehabbing T-Mac searching for his lost mojo in Motown

Tracy McGrady (between Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince) averages 11.3 minutes a game.

Tracy McGrady (between Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince) averages 11.3 minutes a game.

CHICAGO — Either your eyes were playing tricks on you or, seeing how this was Halloween weekend, it was the work of some li’l door-to-door goblins who hadn’t liked their treats and were taking their revenge.

That wasn’t Tracy McGrady out there on the United Center floor the other night against the Chicago Bulls. Couldn’t be. Seven-time All-Star? Two-time scoring champ? Franchise superstar? Rare talent considered “indefensible” by many of his opponents, for much of his career?

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Nah, that guy on the court for the Detroit Pistons, in the blue-and-red No. 1, couldn’t be T-Mac. Looked like him, sure, but moved and played more like some zombie version or a pod person.

Hey, that’s it. Maybe he was in on the holiday joke. Except that no one was laughing, save for a loudmouth near the visitors’ bench.

“T-Mac! T-MAC! This ain’t no old-timers’ game! … Hey Detroit! Someone tell that busted-up dude to sit down! … T-Mac! T-MAC! You’re just like Brett Favre!”

Not exactly Groucho Marx or even Robin Ficker on the wit scale, but the fan had a ticket, so for the price of admission he had the right to bellow just about any non-profane taunt he could conjure from his baseline seat.

McGrady, a handy target who sat for about 31 of the 48 minutes in the Pistons’ fall-apart 101-91 loss to the Bulls, mouthed a couple of silent retorts back at Big Mouth. They were pretty toothless coming from a player who, for most of his 14 NBA seasons, would have shut up that fan and the other 21,037 with him at the UC through his play on the floor.

Not now, though, not during this protracted recovery from microfracture surgery in February 2009 on his left knee. When McGrady sat down for the last time against the Bulls, with 7:28 left, the Pistons led 86-78. Then he could only watch as Chicago outscored them 23-5.

“I’m in a situation right now where I can’t do nothing but watch,” he said in a hallway later that night. “I’m still trying to get myself back to 100 percent. That’s just what it is right now. I can’t be choosy about it. I’m not at a point where I can try to close out games.”

Said an Eastern Conference scout who caught Saturday’s game: “He didn’t look good at all. If you get up in him, he looks slow, like he’s lost a step or two. He doesn’t do anything to get himself open, to free himself to get the ball. I really don’t know. It’s tough because he had all those injuries and now he’s trying to come back. I’ll just have to continue to watch him. But he may have lost it. We’ll see.”

Through four games, heading into Detroit’s visit to Atlanta Wednesday, McGrady had logged 44 minutes off the bench, with eight rebounds, six assists and just two points. He hit a shot from 22 feet late in the third quarter against the Bulls, his only make in seven attempts so far. To find a stretch like this one — two points in four games — you have to go back to McGrady’s rookie season, when he was a trembling, lonely 18-year-old in Toronto.

Now he’s 31, prematurely at what might be the end, trying not to tremble as he works on his body and his game and tries to find improvement in the small things. Our guy David Aldridge wrote Monday about the grind of McGrady’s rehab regimen with Detroit’s revered strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander. Then there’s the whole process of fitting into a new team’s strategies and new teammates’ chemistry.

“Obviously we’re trying to ease him into the process,” Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said. “He’s been the veteran that we expect him to be, as far as in the locker room. When he gets on the floor and tries to dictate things … we’re trying to put him in position to make plays for guys and create because he has a great basketball IQ. In the limited minutes he’s getting, he’s doing a great job of finding guys and making plays. We’re putting him in pick and rolls, putting him in high post [plays] and isolations.”

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Prince is only nine months younger than McGrady but got to the league five years later, by which time T-Mac was in Orlando averaging 32 points a night. That guy is just pixels in a highlight video now. “He was pretty much unstoppable,” Prince recalled. “He was putting up big numbers. But you get an injury like that, it’s kind of devastating.”

Prince learned on a smaller scale last season, missing 33 games with back and knee issues after logging 82 for six straight seasons. “When a guy’s not 100 percent, you don’t want him to force anything,” the Pistons’ lanky small forward said. “Last year was the first time in my career I got injured and, Lord knows, I wanted to get back on the court as soon as possible. I played three or four games and the same injury started to come back a little bit, and I had to sit out another seven or eight games.

“The mentality is, we want to get out and help our team. So patience is the most important part of it.”

It’s more than helping the team, at least for players who have been at McGrady’s level. There’s a need to again be who they once were, to do the things they used to do. To prep for a game knowing how much is expected. To get off the bus and hear it from the fans outside. To mute the big mouths.

Yeah, patience is a pretty big part of it.

“It’s very humbling,” said McGrady, who had seen teammate Grant Hill navigate so many injury setbacks with the Magic. “When you’ve done it for so many years and you’re trying to make a comeback and show people that you still can play and be who you were, it’s very humbling.”

McGrady tried that a little too hard last season, scoring 26 points in his debut in New York after the Houston Rockets traded him in February. He had games of 23 and 21 points, too, but his knee flared up almost immediately and he closed out his season playing in just four of the Knicks’ eight April games, totaling 17 points.

It was sort of a salary drive in reverse, convincing the better teams that McGrady would be of little help in 2010-11. His July workout in Chicago seemed little more than a courtesy. The Miami Heat passed in their roster roundup. Even the Clippers failed to call back.

So McGrady landed a one-year deal with Detroit, a 27-55 team on a rehab of its own. At least no one can accuse him of chasing an easy ring.

“Right now, my whole thing is movement,” he said. “I don’t worry about how many points I’m going to score or anything like that. I just worry about controlling how I’m going to move around the court … Y’know, I feel good about where I’m going to be in a couple of months, because I am working hard and I’m working with a guy [Kander] who is pretty smart.”

No expectations. No pressure. No timetable. No urgency.

Not much present. How much future?

“If it doesn’t work out for me this year, if I feel I’m not making any progress, I’ll make a long, hard decision on whether I want to continue putting my body through this,” McGrady said. “Or go ahead and ride off into the sunset and just be a family man.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.


About eshaan00
Fan of sports. Like to play football, cricket, badminton etc. I can,t talk nicely like others. But a good listener. Like to have true friend.

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