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T-Mac evolves into NBA's best

League-leading scorer Tracy McGrady understands the game better now, which has helped the Magic make it to the playoffs.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2003

During a season of spectaculars, this moment by Tracy McGrady stood out.

In real time, it lasted the four seconds it takes a player to steal the ball at midcourt, dribble the rest of the way and put it in the basket.

But in NBA time, it will last an eternity, growing more legendary each year.

In a 37-point performance April 9 against the Raptors, an 88-82 win that helped propel the Magic into today's opening round of the playoffs against the Pistons, McGrady intercepted a ball at halfcourt and sprinted toward the basket.

With Toronto guard Rafer Alston in his way, McGrady took an extra dribble, lobbed the ball high over Alston's head onto the backboard, leaped past him and slammed the rebound.

The playground dunk epitomized what McGrady has done for Orlando this season. It was an example of unbelievable skill, unflappable courage and uncanny timing.

"In a situation like that, when I have the ball on the break, I'm an unselfish player and he probably thought I was going to one of my teammates," McGrady said. "But little did he know."

The play did not sit well with the Raptors or their coaching staff. Coach Lenny Wilkens suggested someone on his team should have made an effort to prevent the highlight-reel dunk.

"I'm not saying you do anything to hurt anybody, but you don't want someone to embarrass you either," Wilkens said.

McGrady, who has averaged 33.7 points in three games against the Pistons this season, has embarrassed quite a few.

In his third season since coming from Toronto in a sign-and-trade deal that netted a seven-year, $90-million contract -- the same as oft-injured forward Grant Hill -- McGrady has been worth every penny, arriving as the NBA's most devastating scorer.

After he had 36 points in a 109-93 win at Miami on March 19, Heat coach Pat Riley said: "There isn't anybody in the league that can stop McGrady. He's been getting 35 points on everybody in the league. ... I saw something in Tracy McGrady that I haven't seen in a player all year. He made everybody on his team better. Our game plan was to take him out of it, and he still got 36."

He finished the season as the league's top scorer, averaging 32.1. Three times he was the league's player of the week, the most by any player this season. McGrady scored 20 or more in 45 consecutive games and 50 of the Magic's past 52. Not bad for a player who languished on the Raptors bench his first three seasons.

"I've just grown up," said McGrady, who, at age 18, was the ninth selection by Toronto in the 1997 draft. "It's about understanding the game, understanding each possession, understanding what we have to get on certain possessions, time clock management, all that stuff. I have more knowledge of the game now than I did a couple of years ago."

In his sixth season, the native of Auburndale who turns 24 on May 24 has made a mockery of defenses. He has busted zones, hitting a 3-pointer in 49 consecutive games, and ripped apart shut-down specialists, scoring 46 against the Nets' Richard Jefferson, 35 against Indiana's Ron Artest and 37 against Boston's Walter McCarty.

McGrady's sensational season has left his teammates and coaches, along with a number of other players, talking possible MVP.

"His game is definitely on top," teammate Darrell Armstrong said. "He's one of the guys in this league that can put the ball in the basket, play defense, pass the basketball and rebound. He's just one of those guys right now that's making this team go and making this league go."

Perhaps because of the strength of the Western Conference and its better team records, Spurs forward Tim Duncan, Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant garner more attention than McGrady. Even McGrady said his MVP vote would go to Garnett.

Duncan, Garnett and O'Neal are low-post players who play closer to the basket, and Bryant plays with O'Neal.

"When you look at it, Kobe has Shaq, but Tracy doesn't have a dominant big man," Armstrong said. "The Lakers are basically America's team in the NBA now so they're going to get more attention than the Orlando Magic. Mac is playing his game, doing everything he has to do for his team. Kobe is playing his game but really doesn't have to do everything because he has the big fella.

"You have to give Kobe some credit. He did what he had to do to carry his team when Shaq was out. But T-Mac has had to carry his team all year."

Now, he will have to carry the the Magic through the playoffs.

A late-season trade that sent guard Mike Miller to Memphis for forward Drew Gooden and guard Gordan Giricek lit a fire under McGrady. Miller was his close friend, and even now McGrady maintains he was upset with the move.

McGrady scored 52 against the Bulls two nights after the trade and has been merciless to opponents since.

The trade could make McGrady more dangerous in the playoffs, considering Gooden and Giricek provide fresher legs in a best-of-seven series and take some pressure off the main man.

But make no mistake, the Magic's hopes of advancing rely on whether McGrady's 6-foot-8, 210-pound frame can carry his team.

"I feel like I paced myself through the first half of the season and now I don't want to pace myself," he said. "I want to step my game up to another level."

Bothered in the past by lower back problems and, with the absence of Hill, saddled with the everyday burden of being the floor general, McGrady said he prepared his body for the playoff grind.

"The thing that I've done this year that I didn't do in years past was that I worked out all season," he said. "Not necessarily just work out here with the team, but I have my own personal trainer. Sometimes it's off days, sometimes it's after games, I just go and work out just to maintain what I started at the beginning of the season. I feel much stronger, my legs are fresher than they have ever been in the second part of the season. I feel real confident."

Veteran Trail Blazers guard Scottie Pippen, who would like to play with McGrady next season, said the playoffs could provide the league's top scorer with a chance to raise his profile.

"He has to produce in the postseason," Pippen said. "He has to continue to make his mark. In the U.S. and Canada, he is a big player. But he has to make himself more of a global name. That comes from playing on the big stage and playing for a championship."

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