So why is it that the Magic, after Sunday's 100-92 win over Detroit, are within a game of reaching the second round of the playoffs? How is it possible that a team that boasts just one star -- but, boy, it helps when that star is a stud like McGrady -- is up 3-1 in this opening-round series and is on the verge of becoming just the third eighth seed in NBA history to advance to the second round?
"There's a lot of heart on this team," McGrady said. "We have a lot of young guys who go and battle no matter what, and you've got to respect that. You just want to go out and ride with those guys."
Let's not get it twisted: Some people think McGrady is riding alone in Orlando, with the playoff-best 36.3-point average through four games. And he was, again, spectacular in Game 4 on Sunday in producing 27 points, a career-playoff-high nine assists, five steals and a solid defensive job on Chauncey Billups after the Pistons guard had 16 points in the first quarter. (Billups finished with 25 points but didn't score in the second quarter as McGrady put the clamps on him.)
But Orlando doesn't battle back from a 10-point, first-quarter deficit to go up 3-1 if Gooden doesn't get 20 points and 13 boards, solidifying his stature as perhaps the most important trade deadline pickup this season. (Gooden is averaging 14.3 points and 11.3 rebounds this series.)
Orlando doesn't go up 3-1 if Armstrong doesn't will his tired legs to 34 energetic minutes, hitting all six of his shots from the field while scoring 18 points. Orlando doesn't go up 3-1 if not for solid production from guys like Andrew DeClercq (nine points, nine rebounds in 23 minutes), Whitney (five points, six assists) and, yes, even Kemp (four points and solid defense in seven minutes).
"We got a great effort by a lot of different guys," Magic coach Doc Rivers said. "A lot of it is energy and hard work and everyone just buying into their roles."
It's kind of ironic because you could have described the Pistons the same way going into the playoffs -- unselfish effort on the offensive end of the court with everyone willing to share the ball, high-energy guys who are fun to watch as a unit, doing a tremendous job of helping each other out on defense. But the problem with the Pistons is the same that has hovered on this team from Day 1 this season: When the going gets tough offensively, who steps up as the one guy to get the team going?
Rip Hamilton had a nice season in averaging 19.7 points a game to lead the Pistons this season, but the lack of a body to lift a team in need was evident on Sunday when Hamilton scored just five points in 35 minutes. Ben Wallace was a beast in grabbing 24 rebounds and collecting a playoff-high seven steals to go with his 14 points, but he's not a go-to guy when you need a bucket. Clifford Robinson, Billups, Jon Barry ... They're all nice complimentary players, but none are capable of consistently leading a team.
If you're going to ride with a team of role players, you need at least one stud, and McGrady more than qualifies. He hits big shots when the Magic needs them. He has the awareness to find open teammates when defenses key on him. And he's capable -- as he showed Sunday -- of putting the defensive lock on a hot opponent when necessary.
T-Mac is not going to win a championship until he get gets his "guy" in place. But on Sunday, at least for a day, T-Mac and his Not Ready for Prime Time Players whipped the TD Waterhouse Centre into a frenzied state that recalled the days when a dynamic duo in the mid-90s had the Magic riding high.
"I was a young fella watching Shaq and Penny (Hardaway), and I'm just trying to get this franchise back on track like it was," McGrady said. "As a team, we believe."
And, with the Magic on the verge of a playoff upset, so does everyone else.
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.