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What's at stake for Adelman and McGrady

When the playoffs start, it will be better to be Rick Adelman than Tracy McGrady. That their fates are intertwined just speaks to the great potential of this NBA postseason, where there will be plot lines on top of plot lines. But trust me, you want to be Adelman.

No matter what happens to the Houston Rockets in the playoffs, 2007-08 goes down as one of the high points in Adelman's career -- maybe the highest. He had an NBA team ready to play and do whatever it takes to get a victory in 22 consecutive regular-season games. Ask any coach the magnitude of that accomplishment. Most of them would be proud simply to hold the attention of all 12 players for a single pregame speech.

These Rockets already have overachieved, which makes them ineligible to dispel the playoff albatross of underachieving teams that has followed. That discussion is filed away for now.

As for McGrady, it's possible, perhaps even likely, that The Tag will continue to hang from his jersey. You know the label: never won a playoff series. He's had 10 seasons in the league and six trips to the playoffs to do something about it, and the story remains the same. This is the worst environment in which to try to change it. No easy matchups can be found in the Western Conference. It's like trying to get a mortgage with bad credit right now. The Rockets could land one of the top three seeds and still wind up facing San Antonio or Phoenix, and as Han Solo would say, that'd end your trip real quick.

This is Adelman's first year coaching McGrady, so he hasn't been around for any of the failures of the past. But in spending so much time with him, Adelman couldn't help but see and hear about The Tag throughout the season. So he decided to do a little research. He learned that McGrady's teams in Toronto, Orlando and Houston never held the higher seed in any of those playoff series. Only once did McGrady start a series with home-court advantage: last year, when the Rockets played Utah.

He also learned that in five of the six series McGrady posted a higher scoring average in the playoffs than he had during the regular season. The one time he didn't, the drop-off was minimal: from 32.1 points per game to 31.7. So it wasn't as if McGrady vanished at the end of April each year.

"You can only do so much individually," Adelman said. "I think our league has been built on, since way back when, the star system. Individuals. It really is a team game. If you're on a good team, if you have other people around you, you have a chance to move on. If you happen not to be on good teams, or not on favored teams, you have a hard time."

When it comes to The Tag, "I don't buy that," Adelman said. "To me that's something you can point to. If they were the favorite five out of six times and never got it done [it's one thing].

"Sometimes a team gets to the Finals and doesn't do it. I know what that's like. I've been to two Finals and played the defending champion twice, and somehow we did something wrong by losing. You just have to deal with it, do the best you can. I think Tracy's done the best he can."

Adelman's NBA Finals experience came when he was coaching the Portland Trail Blazers. They faced the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and the Chicago Bulls in '92. Both of those opponents were proven winners still playing at their peak. No shame in losing to either of them.

It's the two times Adelman's teams did not reach the finals when they should have that weigh down his career and keep him out of the discussion of the game's great coaches -- even though he ranks among the top 15 all-time in regular-season and playoff victories. His two best teams had nothing to show for their runs, their seasons ending when they couldn't display the necessary poise and mental toughness when it mattered the most.

"It definitely stays with you," Adelman said.

"You're always thinking about what if, what could have been."

In 1991 the Trail Blazers won a league-high 63 games. Somehow they lost the Western Conference finals to a Lakers team that was still going through the post-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar transition.

"That was a year we should not have lost," Adelman said. "We lost the first game of the series and couldn't get the sixth game to come back home. We were the best team in the league. I really truly believe that. We didn't get it done."

There's a little symmetry to the way they lost that series and the way his other disappointing team, the 2002 Sacramento Kings, went down. The defining play of the 1991 Western Conference finals was Magic Johnson throwing the ball to the other end of the court and watching it harmlessly bounce away to run the final seconds off the clock in Game 6. The defining play of the 2002 Western Conference finals was Sacramento's Vlade Divac trying to accomplish the same thing in Game 4, knocking a rebound out to half court ... only to have the ball end up in the hands of Robert Horry for a series-changing shot.

The 2002 Kings were deeper than the Lakers, had home-court advantage over the Lakers, and twice held the series lead against the Lakers. And yet they still lost.

It's good to see that Adelman has stopped blaming the officials for that series, and now gives the Lakers credit for winning it and holds his own team accountable. Yes, the officiating in Game 6, when the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, was a travesty. But the Kings still got to play Game 7 at home, and the moment was too big for them. They got tight. They missed 14 of 30 free throws.

"We thought we had played a great game in Game 6 and came up short," Adelman said. "But Game 7 we played really well and we were in control of that game. But we missed free throws in the fourth quarter. We opened the door, and Shaq and Kobe jumped through. To me, I learned the mark of a real champion is, when that situation rises, you seize it. You really seize it. And they did it."

Hearing Adelman put it that way, describing the lesson he learned, reminds you that the league belongs to the stars, not the coaches. It might be a team game, as Adelman said in defense of McGrady, but it helps when your team has the best player on the floor. Adelman's stars were Clyde Drexler against Magic, Jordan and Isiah Thomas and Chris Webber against Shaq/Kobe. Do you think Phil Jackson or Pat Riley could have done any better facing those long odds?

Now Adelman's fate is tied to McGrady. The only star in the West with lesser playoff accomplishments is Chris Paul -- and that's just because Paul has never been to the playoffs. This is McGrady's quest now. He's the only one with a chance to undo his past. Adelman can't prove he can win with the most talent, not while Yao Ming's foot injury leaves the Rockets shorthanded.

It's almost as if a first-round loss wouldn't count against Adelman. He did his part -- he got them there after the entire season could have gone south when Yao went down.

The ball will be in McGrady's hands. So will the chance to do something about his identity ... and the risk that it will add to the ledger against them.

In 2003, McGrady's Magic had a 3-1 lead and couldn't finish off the Detroit Pistons. He shot 7-for-24 in Game 7. Last year he had a Game 7 at home, and while he had 29 points and 13 assists, he shot 0-for-4 from three-point range and 5-for-9 from the free-throw line in a four-point loss to the Jazz.

Maybe this time McGrady will benefit from Adelman's past failures, the coach can impart the lessons he learned, and McGrady will use them, apply them.

"When the opportunity's there, when you put yourself in a position, then you take advantage of it," Adelman said. "You just keep pushing."

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.