You wonder if Tracy McGrady sits around with his Hawks teammates and reminisces, “Remember when I . . .?’’ or “Did you know I used to . . .?’’
McGrady has years of memories to reflect on. He was once one of the game’s premier scorers, a 6-foot-8-inch wunderkind who could draw defenders on the perimeter for long-range shots, or use his girth and length to post up small forwards who dared to defend him or spin around for a high-flying dunk.
Nine years ago, playing for the Magic, a 22-year-old T-Mac led the NBA in scoring with 32.1 points per game. He led the league again the next season (28.1) before leaving to sign with the Rockets, averaging 25.7 points in his first season in Houston in 2004-05.
He was gliding toward superstardom, an unstoppable offensive force in his prime at 26. That’s when his body began betraying him. In his second season in Houston, McGrady was limited to 47 games. He played 71 the next season but then a rapid decline began; he never played more games than that until 2010-11, when he played 72 for the Pistons but averaged only 8 points per game.
McGrady had been besieged by back problems and was limited to 65 games in 2009-10 because of microfracture surgery. And that relegated him to a journeyman, an ill-fated stint with the Knicks, the stop last season with the Pistons, and a 52-game regular season with the Hawks this season, the sixth team in his 15-year career.
Yet, Friday night at TD Garden, for a stretch of time, the 32-year-old McGrady reminded the nationally televised audience of his once-cherished offensive prowess. He burned the Celtics for 10 first-half points, and in a 2003 flashback, he dominated a Celtics defense that was unable to match up with his size. McGrady even threw down a two-handed dunk in traffic.
Then with 30.3 seconds left in the first half, McGrady’s right ankle landed on the foot of Rajon Rondo after a missed 3-pointer. He crumpled to the floor, a sight all too familiar. He was able to return but scored just 2 points on 0-for-5 shooting in the second half and overtime, playing a season-high 41 minutes.
Injuries again are the main story line for McGrady, not his performance. He wore a slipper on his right foot Saturday before practice, vowing to return for Game 4, convinced that what he displayed in the first half of Game 3 is not an aberration.
“I’ve had [the game] all along,’’ he said. “I don’t know if the coach [Larry Drew] was saving me for this time or it was just the opportunity presented itself.
“This is the first time I’ve played 40 minutes in God knows how many years. So the opportunity was there and I knew I had to be aggressive, and I’m more than capable of giving us a little bit more and I took advantage of it.
“I still got it, man. No doubt. I’ve been saying that all along, I still got it.’’
McGrady entered the NBA out of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., in 1997, a raw but immensely skilled forward for the Toronto Raptors.
After requesting a trade following his third season, McGrady landed in Orlando, playing for a second-year coach named Doc Rivers. The plan was for McGrady to team with Grant Hill and carry the Magic to a championship in the post-Shaquille O’Neal era, but Hill’s ankle injury prevented him from playing that primary role, and McGrady was essentially a one-man team during the Rivers era.
“What I remember is him being a great motivator,’’ McGrady said. “Not letting me relax because I was in my prime and I was such a prolific scorer. He’s very inspirational.
“The one thing I remember about Doc is pregame speeches. He made me want to put a helmet on and run through the damn wall. He was such a great motivator at that time. He never let us feel like we were going to lose a game.
“And as I watch games on TV and hear him talk in the huddle, same thing. Same ol’ thing.’’
McGrady said he has no delusions of grandeur. He realizes he will never consistently be the player he was at 25, but perhaps he can be for short stints.
As Rivers found with Jermaine O’Neal, sometimes high-profile players slowed by injury maintain they can still perform at an All-Star level. McGrady understands he can no longer be the young T-Mac, but he has adjusted his game and mentality to remain relevant in the NBA.
“You just have to understand that’s what it is,’’ he said. “For me, I’ve been fortunate enough to still get opportunities when I wasn’t the same player.
“But being able to know the game and have skills when my athleticism somewhat diminished really helped me. I didn’t get too frustrated.
“It was out of my control, but the opportunities were still there and I was going to make the best of it.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.