McGrady checked in with 7:44 left in the first quarter against the Detroit Pistons to a standing ovation. He missed his first shot, a 20-footer from the wing, with 6:30 left.
The Rockets ran a play for McGrady out of a timeout and he lost the ball in the lane. But McGrady swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:34 remaining, prompting the loudest cheers of the night.
Rookie Chase Budinger replaced McGrady for the start of the second quarter. McGrady had three rebounds and missed two free throws in addition to his lone basket. Houston coach Rick Adelman announced the decision to play McGrady about an hour before the game. He said McGrady would play about seven minutes, all in the first half.
McGrady said he was "extremely nervous" to play for the first time since Feb. 9. He underwent the risky surgery on Feb. 24 and spent the summer in Chicago rehabbing with Tim Grover, a trainer who previously worked with Michael Jordan.
"Everything I went through last year and what it really took in the offseason for me to get back, to put myself in a position to be on an NBA team, it's a great feeling," McGrady said. "It's a very humbling feeling."
McGrady was in and out of the lineup all of last season and played in only 35 games. He averaged 15.6 points, his lowest total in a decade and admitted that he was playing in constant pain.
The Rockets tried limiting his practice time, keeping him out of the second games of back-to-back sets and resting him for two weeks in January, but the knee didn't improve.
He opted for the high-risk procedure and doctors set his recovery time at six to 12 months.
McGrady said in September that he was "far ahead of schedule." He returned to practice on Nov. 23 and Adelman and general manager Daryl Morey have faced daily questions about when McGrady would return.
Adelman said Monday he did not consider McGrady an option to fill in for Trevor Ariza, who's taken McGrady's role in the lineup this season. Ariza was suspended for Tuesday's game after swinging his forearm at Toronto's DeMar DeRozan on Sunday.
Adelman said he reconsidered on Tuesday, and told McGrady less than 90 minutes before the game that he was activated.
"My career definitely could've been over, with the type of surgery that I had," McGrady said. "It's good to be back, playing in front of the great fans here, competing with great teammates and doing something I really love to do."
Adelman said he and McGrady have been discussing for "a while" the right situation for his return. Adelman added that he's keeping McGrady on a cautious schedule for now.
"When he plays, it's going to be very short minutes, for the start of this," Adelman said. "With Trevor out, the more I thought about it, it's a good time to play him. He will see some short time between now and Christmas, just to see how he feels."
The Rockets acquired McGrady in 2004, and his stay in Houston has been marked more by injuries than team success. He hurt his left knee in 2007-08, and missed time in 2006-07 with back issues.
McGrady could not estimate how long he'll need to return to full strength from this layoff.
"Playing this game, when you're out so long, you look at Allen Iverson, he's struggling right now in his first couple of games," McGrady said. "When you're out of this game for so long, it's tough to think you're going to come back and dominate these guys. The league is too good.
"Hopefully, we can just work our way up, every game," he said.