HOUSTON (AP)—Maybe this will be the year for Tracy McGrady.
Winless in six playoff series, McGrady is running out of chances to amend his legacy of postseason failures. Utah’s victory over Houston in seven games last year left him in tears.
Now, he’s back again, and facing a familiar foe. The Rockets open a first-round series against those same Jazz in Houston on Saturday night.
“I’m in a position to make it happen,” he said. “I’m eager to advance, but I’m not even worrying about what happened in the past. I’m here again and we’ll see what happens.”
Just like a season ago, Utah won the Northwest Division, but the Rockets finished one game better in the overall standings to earn home-court advantage.
While the Jazz bring back virtually the same lineup that reached the Western Conference finals, Houston has forged a new look under first-year coach Rick Adelman. Rookie Luis Scola has capably replaced Yao Ming, who was lost for the season with a foot injury; the bench is deeper and Adelman has implemented a system that’s gotten every player involved at the offensive end.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan is wary of what the cast around McGrady can do.
“It can’t all fall on his shoulders. He’s not the only guy on the team,” Sloan said. “He’s a wonderful player, but as great a player as he is, he still has to have help. And I think they’ve gotten a lot of help for him this year.”
But with Yao gone, McGrady will be pivotal. He averaged 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds in last year’s series and had 29 points and 13 assists in the finale.
“He’s still a phenomenal player,” Utah forward Carlos Boozer said. “We know he hasn’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. We don’t want that to happen against us. He’s a stud.”
The Rockets went 55-27 this season, a remarkable accomplishment considering they played the last two months without Yao and were missing McGrady for 16 games. They’ll play at least the first two games of this series without starting point guard Rafer Alston, who’s sidelined with a strained right hamstring.
Utah point guard Deron Williams also is hurt, nursing a bruised tailbone, but said he’ll be ready to play on Saturday.
Bobby Jackson, who played for Adelman in Sacramento, will start in Alston’s place. The Rockets acquired Jackson in a trade with New Orleans just before the deadline, and he’s averaged nine points, three rebounds and two assists in 26 games.
Alston, Jackson and ageless center Dikembe Mutombo are the only players on the Houston roster who’ve won playoff series in their careers. Jackson thinks Houston’s lack of experience will be a factor.
“The more years you play in the playoffs, the more you know what to expect,” said Jackson, who’s in the postseason for the eighth time. “Experience is pretty much a key going into the playoffs.”
Adelman tried to bolster his inexperienced players with a pep talk on Thursday.
“There’s not one guy in our locker room that I haven’t thrown in a game in a big situation,” Adelman said. “There have been times when they haven’t played great, but all of them have responded at one time or another in pressure situations.
“I told them, ‘This is going to be different, this is the playoffs, you haven’t been through it. But I don’t see any reason why you can’t respond. You’ve done it all year long.”’
The Jazz, meanwhile, have eight players back from last year’s playoff roster and Adelman is worried about how his team matches up.
Last year, even with the 7-foot-6 Yao guarding him, Boozer averaged 25 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. Boozer scored 35 points in the series-clinching victory in Houston.
Williams will be another difficult matchup for Houston, especially with Alston hobbled. Williams averaged 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds against Houston in the playoffs last year.
“He’s a real handful. He can take a game over,” Adelman said. “We’re just looking at it just like we have all year. We have to defend as a team. We’ve been very good at it and I don’t see why we can’t do it in this series.”
One key difference from last year that may favor the Rockets is their mind-set. They were expected to win the series last year; this time, they’re using their underdog status to their advantage.
“I don’t feel there is any pressure on us,” Battier said. “So, we’re going to go out, play free, have fun and take our shots.”
The Jazz, however, say last year’s playoff run gives them the mental edge in this series.
“Last year, we were the unknowns,” Boozer said. “We didn’t know what to expect, but now we do. We have a little bit more confidence than we did last year going to into it.”