HOUSTON -- Tracy McGrady held back the tears as he contemplated another first-round playoff series gone wrong. But he didn't back down from his pre-series assertion that it was "on him" if the Rockets didn't advance.
Jazz trio drowns out T-Mac
"Absolutely," he said after the Rockets' 103-99 defeat in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Jazz.
"I'm not shying away from that at all. I said this team is going to go as far as I take them, and I tried my best.
"Maybe I could have made an extra play here, maybe I could have got those loose rebounds that we need in the fourth quarter that we didn't get down the stretch of the game, maybe I could have did more, but it didn't happen."
"I tried, man," he said with eyes welling up. "I tried."
McGrady did more than try, actually.
His 29 points, 13 assists and three blocks allowed the Rockets to rally from a double-digit second-half deficit and briefly take a lead in the fourth quarter.
That's nothing new for T-Mac -- he pumped in 25.3 points per game in the series, continuing his career-long pattern of boosting his regular-season numbers during the playoffs.
Unfortunately, that has yet to translate into a first-round series victory for McGrady. And with tonight's defeat, it's the third time that T-Mac's team has taken a two-game lead in a best-of-seven series but failed to close the deal.
Previously, his Orlando team squandered a 3-1 lead against Detroit in 2003, and then two years ago these same Rockets lost to Dallas in seven after winning the first two games on the Mavs' home court.
Overall, he's now 0-for-6 in the first round for his career, and it's clear that his worst nightmare is being The Guy Who Can't Win in the Playoffs.
But for T-Mac to say he could have done more requires some serious nit-picking. Between the points and assists, McGrady accounted for all but nine of the Rockets' field goals, an immense offensive load that helps explain why even his best wasn't quite good enough Saturday night.
And unfortunately for the Rockets, a Utah offense that had been stuck in the mud for much of the series was clicking on all cylinders Saturday, making it imperative that Houston break the century mark.
"They exploited us on the defensive end," McGrady said. "We thought we'd make some changes and after playing them six times, have everything covered, and it just didn't work. First half they shot 58 percent, it was layup after layup. We go over this stuff every day. It just seemed their execution was better."
As a result, the Rockets' series-high 99 points weren't enough to bring them a win. And in a game played at such a slow pace, 99 was an impressive total. It was just that Houston couldn't get the stops -- or the rebounds -- it needed down the stretch.
"The game wasn't lost on offense ... the game was lost defensively and rebounding, the two things we try to build our team around because they can be consistent,"coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "When you give up seven second shots in the fourth quarter and [Utah] shoots 51 percent, you're going to struggle."
Houston can point to other failures. The inability of the role players to step up, for instance, with Rafer Alston's multiple misses on wide-open 3-pointers proving especially troublesome (he went 2-for-8). Or the pattern of poor first halves -- Houston trailed at the break in all seven games, and was down by 10 at the break Saturday.
And of course, there was the failure to foul Utah's Deron Williams in the backcourt with nine seconds left and the Rockets down by two. By the time Houston fouled there were only 1.7 seconds left, and Andrei Kirilenko's free throws iced the game.
"There was no good explanation for that," Van Gundy said.
But perhaps the biggest reason was simply the fact that three of a kind beats a pair.
With Utah possessing Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams -- all three of whom had double-doubles tonight -- there was simply too much for Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming (who had a dominant fourth quarter in defeat) to overcome.
Boozer in particular was outstanding, with 35 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, as he and Williams pick and rolled the Rockets to death much as John Stockton and Karl Malone used to in days gone by.
That must have been eerily reminiscent for sideline observer Hakeem Olajuwon -- who flew in all the way from Jordan (the country, not the brand) to take in the contest and noted how little the Jazz had changed from his playing days when I caught up with him at halftime.
The difference this time was that the Dream wasn't in uniform to pull the game out at the end. Instead, tonight's result leaves McGrady in much the same position that Dirk Nowitzki is in after the West's surprising first round -- pondering a legacy of playoff failures.
"We put ourselves in a great position to do something really special with the type of season that we had," said McGrady before his eyes started getting puffy. "[It's] just disappointing, the outcome."
John Hollinger covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
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The Pistons have had plenty of practice dealing with Ben "The Body" Wallace, so they know two bodies are better than one.
DETROIT -- Chicago coach Scott Skiles singled out Bulls center Ben Wallace as the one player on his team whose effort he did not have a problem with, even though Wallace grabbed only two offensive rebounds all night and scored just two of his nine points after the first quarter.
Among those bearing most of the individual blame were Ben Gordon (2-for-9 in 27 minutes), Andres Nocioni (a ghastly 1-for-8 with four turnovers, including three in rapid succession the first time he entered the game) and Tyrus Thomas (1-for 5, five turnovers). As a unit, the reserves combined to shoot just 3-for-30 with 12 of the Bulls' 22 turnovers.
Right from the start, the Pistons used their quick hands to deflect passes and poke the ball away from drivers, and their quick feet and length deprived the Bulls of the steady diet of midrange shots that they feasted off in their first round sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat.
The Pistons had a 19-7 edge in points off turnovers and a 14-11 edge in offensive rebounds, and they held Chicago to just 28 points in the second half.
"The good thing was that we won a series, the bad thing is everyone telling our guys how great they are," Skiles said. "We generally play harder than our opponents, and tonight they taught us a lesson."
While Toronto's Sam Mitchell has received more attention for his potential "free agency," Van Gundy is basically in the same situation -- his contract has only one nonguaranteed season remaining, meaning that he and the Rockets might have a decision to make.
On the surface, you'd think this would be a no-brainer.
Van Gundy is one of the league's premier defensive coaches, was one of the strongest contenders for Coach of the Year honors this year, and has a track record of building overachieving teams that punch far above their weight. He also has a ringing endorsement from one of his stars.
"As a coach, I've always said he's the best coach I've ever played for," McGrady said. "I have a lot of respect for Jeff. Whatever the situation is, I hope that he's back because I love the guy as a coach and as an individual."
While the odds of a Van Gundy return to Houston are generally thought to be far greater than those on Mitchell coming back to the Raptors, losing a Game 7 at home probably didn't help his case any.
Besides, if the Rockets liked him so much, why haven't they extended his deal yet?
Regardless, the Van Gundy question will be the first of many tough decisions Daryl Morey faces this summer, as he takes over the general manager position from the retiring Carroll Dawson, decisions that inevitably become tougher in the wake of tonight's unhappy ending.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and with as many as seven jobs open this summer, Van Gundy may also decide he wants to play the market.
But Van Gundy wasn't saying a peep tonight.
"All that stuff about next year is for another time," he said. "Tonight's about a hugely disappointing result. Our guys had a tremendous regular season and they're a great group, and we didn't play as well as we would have hoped in the postseason."
-- John Hollinger from Houston
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Carlos Boozer showed he knew his way around the block in his first playoff series, often dominating Yao Ming in leading the Utah Jazz to a 4-3 defeat of Houston.
Honorable mention: Rockets guard Tracy McGrady, with 29 points, 13 assists, five rebounds and three blocked shots in a losing effort.
Quote of the Day:
-- Royce Webb
The home team won the first six games of the Jazz-Rockets series, the 21st time in NBA history that happened.
However, the Jazz are only the third team to buck the trend in Game 7.
The other road teams in win a Game 7 after the home team had won each of the first six games: the Celtics over the Lakers in the 1969 Finals, and the Baltimore Bullets against the Knicks in the 1971 Eastern Conference Finals.
Carlos Boozer had 35 points and 14 rebounds in the Jazz's win in Houston.
Only two players had that many points and rebounds in a non-overtime winner-take-all game on the road (Game 7 in a best-of-seven; Game 5 in a best-of-five, etc.).
Both of those players did it in a losing effort: Patrick Ewing (37 points, 17 rebounds) in the Knicks' Game 7 loss to the Heat in Miami in 1997 and Dolph Schayes (35 points, 16 rebounds) in the Syracuse Nationals' Game 7 loss to the Celtics in Boston in 1959.
Tracy McGrady had 29 points and 13 assists in the Rockets' loss.
Only one other player has had that many points and assists in a winner-take-all loss: John Stockton had 29 points and 20 assists in the Jazz's Game 7 loss to the Lakers in 1988.
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This figures to be a fascinating series on many levels, but primarily, it will be about San Antonio controlling tempo and Phoenix executing in the half court.
It is easier to negate tempo than create it, and the Spurs are the best in the league at neutralizing a running attack: in their three games this year Phoenix averaged 12 ppg below its season average.
San Antonio is coming off a series win over another of the league's elite running teams and is in a rhythm of shutting down a high-powered running attack.
But the difference between the two is that Phoenix will make San Antonio work harder for shots and is a deeper, more disciplined team.
San Antonio is the best in the league at controlling tempo and making ancillary players beat you.
But Phoenix has Steve Nash running the pick and roll and more ancillary weapons than any other team in the league as well as an interior presence to combat Duncan.
Some facts and figures from Game 1 of the Bulls-Pistons series:
• The Pistons defeated the Bulls in Game 1 of their series, 95-69. It's the 54th time that a team won Game 1 of an NBA postseason series by at least 25 points.
• The team winning Game 1 by 25 or more points went on to win the series 46 of the previous 53 times (87 percent).
• The Bulls became the fifth team in the shot-clock era (since the 1954-55 season) to score fewer than 70 points in Game 1 of a postseason series.
• Detroit and Chicago met in four straight postseasons in the 1980s and '90s, with the Pistons winning the first three before Michael Jordan and Co. broke through in 1991 en route to their first of six titles.
• Since 2003, four Pistons are in the top five among playoff games played and the fifth is Ben Wallace. Hamilton and Ben Wallace played in their 88th postseason game in five years, leading the list.
• The Bulls won the season series 3-1.
• Nearly 20 reporters were huddled around Ben Wallace before the game, and he joked about the house he still owns in suburban Detroit. "I'll cut you a good deal," he said.
-- Elias Sports Bureau/Associated Press