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NBA Comeback Day: Prince takes on McGrady in 2003 playoffs

Every team has its share of comebacks, but it's rare when a comeback signifies as much as the day the Pistons, down 3-1 to the Magic in the first round of the 2003 playoffs put an unheralded, skinny rookie from Kentucky on the NBA's scoring leader.

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

When I heard that SBNation sites NBA-wide were being asked to determine what best defined "Comeback Day" for their favorite franchise only one thought came to my mind:

"It feels good to get into the second round."

Those were the immortal words uttered in 2003 playoffs by superstar Tracy McGrady after his eighth-seeded Orlando Magic went up 3-1 on the one-seeded Detroit Pistons. But a funny thing happened on the way to the second round. Or, more accurately, a funny-looking player by the name of Tayshaun Prince.

Prince, an awkward, beanpole of a rookie out of the University of Kentucky who had played sparingly under head coach Rick Carlisle was summoned from the end of the bench, dusted off and asked to guard the Magic's best player and one of the most versatile and deadly scorers in the NBA.

The thought was that perhaps Prince's freakish length combined with his quickness might disrupt McGrady's rhythm. Really, Carlisle just wanted to slow McGrady down and give his team a chance. Frankly, he was desperate. When one more loss means your season is over coaches are willing to try just about anything.


And what Carlisle had been doing definitely wasn't working. In the first four games of the series, McGrady scored 43, 46, 29 and 27 points, respectively, shot over 51 percent from the field, and his team had an average margin of victory of just over 7 points.

It seemed like the resurgent Pistons team, a 50-game winner and No. 1 seed, was all smoke and mirrors. A product of the early-2000s "Leastern Conference" where playoff slots were awarded by default and everyone was playing for the right to get obliterated by the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals.

The Pistons were a team with no stars whose highest-paid player was Clifford Robinson (making $8 million), and the gap between the team's second-highest paid player (Ben Wallace) and its 14th-highest paid player (Prince's guaranteed $900,000 as a low first-round pick) was a mere $4.3 million.

The Pistons were a young team with a young head coach who was headed for the exits.

That's certainly what I thought. And that's certainly what the media thought. And it's what McGrady thought.

And why wouldn't he? T-Mac was driving the lane and hitting thunderous dunks. He was spotting up and hitting from deep. Step-backs and fall-aways were falling effortlessly. He simply couldn't be stopped.

As the New York Times put it at the time, McGrady, the reigning NBA scoring champion, just refused to lose:

As McGrady sees it, getting eliminated in the first round is not an option this season. ''I'm just doing what it takes,'' he said. ''I'm putting these guys on my shoulders and they're going to ride with me.''

The problem was, instead of just thinking he was headed to the second round, T-Mac decided to say it out loud. McGrady was so confident, and so relieved after suffering three straight first-round exits the previous three seasons, that he told media, "It feels good to get into the second round."

And if the series was held just one year before he would have been right. The 2002-03 season was the first year of the NBA going to seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. But game five needed to be played. And then so did game six. And so did game seven. And then the Magic packed their bags and made vacation plans.


In the Magic's three wins, Prince played a total of 11 minutes. But after giving Prince 17 largely unremarkable minutes in Detroit's game 2 win, Carlisle switched gears starting in game 5 and built his defensive gameplan around Prince, asking the rookie to play man defense on McGrady. Carlisle wanted to make T-Mac work for his points and ensure his less than stellar supporting cast couldn't beat the Pistons. Carlisle's plan paid off. Prince's long arms enabled him to play off of McGrady and cut off driving lanes while still bothering any jumpers McGrady took. And he wasn't shy about taking jump shots.

In the critical game five, with Prince tasked with slowing McGrady and saving the Pistons' season, T-Mac hit just eight of 20 shots. Prince, meanwhile, played 33 minutes and was a team-high +27 for the game, a game Detroit won by 31 points in front of a raucous crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

McGrady shot 36 percent in the final three games, all Magic losses. And calling them losses is putting it kindly as the average margin of victory was 20 points.


The Pistons subsequently got swept in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets. But they showed the NBA, and more importantly themselves, that they were a team to be reckoned with. And we know the fantastic run (and subsequent fall) of that Pistons squad.

Rick Carlisle fired after two 50-win seasons and replaced by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.

The Human Victory Cigar.

The Pistons trade a bunch of spare parts for the baddest bad boy of his day in Rasheed Wallace.

The Going to Work crew holds five straight opponents under 70 points.

The Block.

A bunch of unheralded players who play great together besting the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in the NBA Finals. The same Lakers who had a couple future Hall of Famers (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) chasing a ring in the twilight of their careers.

A return to the NBA Finals and the dreaded coffin corner.

From 2002 to 2006 the core of Big Ben, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Prince and then Rasheed won 222 games, 49 playoff games and one NBA championship and went to game 7 in another finals appearance.


Then the regular season-tastic Flip Saunders era full of 60-win seasons and playoff disappointments.

Ben Wallace in a Bulls uniform.

The LeBron-splosion -- before taking his talents to South Beach, the King put his hometown Cavs on his back and scored Cleveland's last 25 points, 29 of its last 30 and all 18 covering two overtimes in the Pistons most humiliating loss of my lifetime.

The Billups-Iverson swap.

The signing of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

And down and down it went.


It's valuable to remember, especially for younger fans and as Detroit enters its first legitimately exciting rebuilding year since the turn of the century, how much Prince, the last legacy of the Going to Work era, has meant to this team.

He is the only remaining player from that epic run, and yes, it would probably be better for all involved if he was playing third or fourth banana on a true contender. But without Prince while there might be no buffoonery there also would be no dominance. No six straight season of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. No championship. He helped begin and define an era.

It all started on April 30, 2003 when an unheralded rookie played an unlikely hero and made Tracy McGrady eat his words. And it was a comeback that was a sign of the great things to come.