By Marc Stein
Houston's watching his back
HOUSTON -- This Christmas, they don't really have the assets to make another trade or two. They can't even think about trying to manufacture a roster spot for Latrell Sprewell, furthermore, unless Spree significantly slashes his contract demands. All the Houston Rockets can do at this point is what they did Tuesday night.
Which breaks down to showing up for the games and hoping they find Tracy McGrady feeling this sturdy.
The signs weren't promising at the morning shootaround, when McGrady's back stiffened just standing and listening to the game plan. Yet by tipoff time, with the pain as manageable as it's been since his awkward fall in practice Nov. 4, McGrady decided to make his grand return. A few hours later, finally smiling again and tapping his wood-paneled locker for luck, McGrady expressed cautious optimism that he can play through this level of discomfort for a while. Maybe even for the rest of the season.
"I'm not going to be 100 percent," he conceded, "regardless of what I do and how much rest I get."
The Rockets, as a result, couldn't get too giddy about McGrady's 25-point, nine-rebound, five-assist comeback in a 100-85 defeat of the Atlanta Hawks. This is probably how it's going to be for them for the rest of the season, praying McGrady can grind away at whatever percentage accurately assesses his health . . . and wondering how he'll feel the morning after.
Not that the Rockets have much choice. It's pretty clear, after they went 0-8 without him, that the only certain route to drastic improvement is a lasting upturn in T-Mac's health.
Ten days as a spectator, helpless to rescue a needy Yao Ming and the needier souls Yao tried to carry, "felt like forever" in McGrady's words. Yet he seriously flirted with skipping this one as well and waiting to come back Saturday against Memphis, having promised himself that he wouldn't play if a cortisone shot was required. So after rushing back earlier this month, this time he was patient. He waited as long as it took for the pain to subside naturally, until he reached last season's levels of looseness.
"It's pretty much the same [back problem] I've had before," McGrady said. "So I know how to handle it. [But] I definitely don't want to come back and then have to shut myself down and set the team back again.
"Everybody's been in my ear telling me not to be Superman [and] just sit my butt down."
It was the prudent approach no matter how far Houston had sunk, considering McGrady hasn't been healthy since camp started. It was knee discomfort before the back, prompting the suggestion that T-Mac -- in his quest to atone for the 116-76 humiliation in Game 7 at Dallas that ended last season -- might have overworked himself in the off-season.
Of course, he's spectacular even at this speed and even when rust and fatigue leads to eight turnovers. He overcame any conditioning concerns to fill up the box score and the highlight reel, swooping at each end to block a Zaza Pachulia dunk attempt and then duck under the rim to toss in one of his trademark twisting layups.
He also liberated Yao from increasing scrutiny and criticism and you could tell how grateful Yao was. The big man has been promising to buy McGrady a new iPod and promptly presented the gift in the locker room, after Yao suggested to the assembled media that this was "a new start for us to rebuild our whole season."
They need one, since Houston's 6-11 record from last December looks enticing compared to the 3-11 depths that greeted McGrady's return to work. Especially knowing that they're unlikely to swing the sort of turnaround-sparking deals seen last Christmas, when the Rockets acquired David Wesley and Jon Barry to help change their personality.
"I'm not happy with the win," McGrady said. "I'll take it, but we've still got a lot of work to do."
Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who returned to action after missing seven games with a sprained right ankle, scored seven points off the bench. But Stephen Jackson and Indy stopped Utah, 84-60.
According to reports, Latrell Sprewell made more than $14 million last season. When a player like him reaches the point in his career where he can't command top dollar any longer, it can be a major shock to the player's psyche.Point guard Kenny Anderson helped the Celtics win 49 games during the 2001-02 season, his last year of a very big contract. I remember telling Chris Wallace, our general manager at the time, that I enjoyed coaching Anderson but that it would be awfully difficult to be his coach the first year after a major pay cut.
We knew from experience that offering a player substantially less than what he is used to would make it difficult psychologically for him to re-sign with us. If a player did return under those circumstances, he usually wouldn't be a happy camper.
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Lakers guard Kobe Bryant runs into Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. With Bruce Bowen blanketing No. 8, the Spurs ran over the Lakers, 90-84. Ginobili had 22 points.
Quote of the Night
-- Andrew Ayres
Shawn Kemp: The Reign Man has reportedly shed 55 pounds in his effort to make a comeback 2˝ years after he logged his last NBA minute for the Orlando Magic. A report over the weekend said Toronto and Denver were interested, but Raptors GM Rob Babcock said the 36-year-old is not a fit for a 1-14 team on a youth movement.
The Clippers won 93-84 at Minnesota, giving them five road wins this month. In the 36-season history of their franchise (spanning Buffalo, San Diego and Los Angeles), the Clippers have won more road games in any calendar month only twice: the Buffalo Braves won six road games in November 1974 (led by Bob McAdoo) and the Clips won seven away from home in March 1992.
• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles doesn't need an excuse to push an uptempo game. So when he was faced with an Orlando Magic team playing its fourth game in five days, you know his confidence in his approach was strong.
Under Skiles, the Bulls run, run and run some more. And the same was true Tuesday night in Chicago. His approach reminds me of some of the older days of the NBA, when teams would be winning late by 20, and they're still running at you.
This game was closer, an 85-76 win over the Magic, snapping Orlando's four-game win streak. The Bulls had the edge in fastbreak points, 11-5.
Luol Deng, who came off the bench to score 21 points, said afterward how the team's approach has been defined by an unwillingness to be outplayed through superior effort.
Sounds familiar. That's Skiles! This is a team that has truly taken on its coach's personality. They're relentless. That's exactly how he played.
The execution was there, too. Kirk Hinrich (20 points, 14 assists, five steals, one turnover) put out a line that doesn't get much better.
The younger players here like Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Deng, have lived up to their potential. A lot of credit goes to GM John Paxson.
They're not happy with playoff appearance from last year. And if a player isn't fitting in, like Tim Thomas, this organization appears willing to swallow a significant financial loss.
Skiles' style has grated on people in the past. But the guys who have played under him respect the way he played.
The Bulls are going to have plenty of salary cap room in the offseason. There's going to be veteran players who are going to want to come here. It's amazing how many players, when they're getting older, realize it's about the team.
And that team might be the Bulls.
-- Will Perdue in Chicago
Steve (Columbus OH): Hey Rick, The other night on a different network the analyst who we will just call "Charles" said five teams in the league are playing for a championship but he didn't include the Cavs with these teams. How do you feel about LBJ and Co. hoisting a trophy?