On this day 14 years ago, Tracy McGrady went from a promising phenom that would launch the Rockets to the next level to a Rockets legend in just his 18th career game with the Rockets.
If T-Mac retired immediately following this game, he would still be one of the most celebrated Rockets in franchise history because this moment is still one of the most iconic, most improbable, most jaw-dropping, most incredible performances in Rockets history.
When T-Mac pulled this rabbit out of a hat, I was six years old. I saw McGrady in a different light. He was not a mere mortal, but rather a superhero, performing daring stunts and shocking the world.
This is the moment I fell in love with the game. For years, I would perform my own re-enactment of the 13 in 33 because I wanted to be just like T-Mac, a superhero.
With time winding down and the Rockets down eight with 37 seconds left, the seats in the Toyota Center were mostly red, vacated by “fans” who had wanted to beat the traffic rather than watch their team’s final moments of a loss to the eventual NBA champion Spurs.
McGrady hits a three from near the top of the key to cut the deficit to five at 76-71 with 35 seconds to go. It was a nice shot, but I don’t think anybody thought the Rockets were going to claw their way back into it. The Spurs were a great foul-shooting team or the Spurs were going to milk the shot clock down to the final seconds and put the Rockets out of reach.
San Antonio knocks down their two free throws, as expected, to push the lead back to seven points. On the ensuing possession, the ball is in McGrady’s hands and he gets a screen from Yao Ming to shake off Bruce Bowen. Tim Duncan switches on to T-Mac, and Duncan is baited on the pump fake, where T-Mac sinks the four-point play in what appeared to look effortless. McGrady makes the free throw to cut the Spurs lead to just three points with 24 seconds to go.
Duncan would go to the free throw line to push the lead back to five, but McGrady would sprinkle a little more magic by launching another three of his own from the same spot two possessions earlier to cut the lead to just two. But time was still not a friend for the Rockets. The team was down just two with 11 seconds to go, but the Rockets needed a stop.
Who else than Tracy McGrady, who was playing like a basketball demigod, half-man, half-god?
McGrady forces a turnover on the weak inbounds pass to Devin Brown and gets the steal with eight seconds to go, and this was when it looked like the Rockets were going to win. There was simply no way T-Mac and the Rockets were going to pull this heist and steal away a win from the Spurs like this and come up just short. For all of the things to go Houston’s way at the end for them to just come up short was not what the game was going to script.
At that point, you knew that McGrady was going to grab the ball, take it up court, pull up in transition into his spot and not just tie the game, but take the lead and win the game for the Rockets.
81-80 Rockets win.
Coming into this game, the Rockets were struggling as the team had undergone numerous changes in the offseason with T-Mac coming in and changing not just the personnel, but the way the team operated and played. With the come-from-behind win, the Rockets improved to just 9-9 on the season. From that moment on, the Rockets went 42-22 down the stretch to finish with 51 wins and the fifth seed in the West.
And in an ironic twist of fate, the present-day Rockets found themselves on the wrong side of an improbable solo run late last night against the Mavericks, losing in heartbreaking fashion to the tune of 11 straight Luke Doncic points to end the game. The dagger to send the Rockets down three and to overtake the lead was a shot you knew was going in when it left his hands.
Moments like T-Mac’s 13 in 33 sparks team and inspires a new direction, something the present-day Rockets are in dire need of right now. Perhaps it never comes, but hopefully something similar comes sooner rather than later. And I say similar because the chances of something so phenomenal happening again are slim to none and will never be repeated again.