It shouldn't take Tracy McGrady long to figure out what the headlines will say a few days from now: "T-MAC SUFFERS ANOTHER POST-SEASON WASHOUT!" "McMELTDOWN!" "T-MAC SACKED!"

Another year, another first-round flame-out is on the way.

Pity the $20 million-a-year player that doesn't bring home championships.

McGrady, who is on the verge of his seventh playoff series without advancing, took a brave step last post-season. Rather than getting surly and defensive, he said the Rockets' post-season success was up to him.

"It's all on me," he said.

Houston blew a two-games-to-none lead and lost to Utah in the first round.

By this year he adopted a more team-oriented approach, saying they were all in it together. Still, after Monday's loss that put the Jazz up 2-0 in this best-of-seven series, he seemed to understand nothing has changed. It's still on him.

"It is what it is," said McGrady, regarding the two-game deficit.

And what it is is proof positive that T-Mac isn't the next Michael Jordan, because Jordan won championships and McGrady just wins scoring titles. He lost in the first round once in Toronto, three times in Orlando and is approaching a third first-round exit in Houston.

Nothing to show for his work but a grimace.

The Rockets will have to win at least twice in Salt Lake — where the Jazz lost only four games all season — to move into the second round.

"There's nothing I can do about it but go out there and do what I did tonight and lead my team," he said on Monday. "I just fell short. I don't care about the criticism."

Truthfully, McGrady does care. Nobody wants to be labeled a failure. Yet he isn't building a very strong case this post-season. He is 16-43 from the field overall and has made no baskets and scored just one point in the fourth quarter.

But before scorning him like an oil executive or a reptile (if there's a difference), consider this: The man is hauling an injury-depleted team through the playoffs against heavy odds.

It's not like there are a lot of options.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are taking full advantage. With Yao Ming and Rafer Alston out with injuries, Utah has ganged up on McGrady and stared down everyone else. They have been running a steady string of fresh bodies at him from start to finish: Ronnie Brewer, Andrei Kirilenko, Kyle Korver and Matt Harpring.

By the time the game is over, McGrady looks like he's been through the spin cycle.

"I'm pretty tired," he said Monday. "In the fourth quarter I didn't have anything."

So it appears McGrady will soon complete another playoff whiff. He'll be called a choker, wimp, prima donna and quitter again.

Yet it's the same McGrady who carried his team to 22 consecutive wins this year after fellow All-Star Yao went down.

He has contributed assists (16) and rebounded well (19) in the playoffs, hoping his teammates might pick up the slack. Unfortunately, the rest of the team is made of spare parts, not All-Stars. They are good players, but not great ones.

And he's still the team leader, netting 43 points in two games.

His all-time playoff scoring average is 29, four more than his regular season average. He averages more assists and rebounds in the post-season than in the regular season, too.

That's not a quitter, it's a guy desperately in need of backup.

Considering Houston's injury situation, the Jazz don't have to be tricky. They just need to know where T-Mac is at all times. Follow him from his front door, to the dry cleaners, to the pet store, to the arena and back. That should do the trick. If so, and McGrady fails again, it won't be the worst disaster ever. Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Charles Barkley all went to the NBA Finals but never won titles. Technically they're all in the same class as McGrady: great players who never won a championship.

That doesn't make any of them dogs, nor does it make McGrady a complete failure.

It simply makes him a great player who had nowhere to turn when he was all boxed up.


E-mail: [email protected]