For those NBA fantasy league managers who have Yao on their roster and were hurt earlier this season when he was out 21 games with his toe injury, surgery, and recovery, I have great news for you. You are now being rewarded for your suffering.
In the four years I have been running this Web site, I don’t think I have ever seen Yao play so well with such consistency.
Yao has had stretches like this previously in his career, only to take a few steps backward. But not this time around, Yao has really hit his stride and is racking up double-doubles consistently.
He had another one Sunday afternoon in Orlando, scoring 29 points (15-of-19 from the line, the most makes and attempts this season by a Rocket) and grabbing 11 boards to lead the Rockets to an 89-84 win. You can honestly say that without Yao in the lineup, the Rockets would be losing most of these games. It used to be that’s what you would say about T-Mac. Don’t get me wrong – T-Mac has been very important, but without Yao, the Rockets would not have won 10 of their last 12 games.
One of the reasons for Yao’s improvement lately is his ability to stay out of foul trouble. Another is his improved conditioning. It also helps he had more of a physical and mental break this past summer without as many commitments to the Chinese national team. Another is that his toe feels a lot better after finally getting it treated.
That was no more evident when he made one of his quickest baseline spin moves this season in the second quarter Sunday, exploding around Tony Battie, leaving him in his wake, then throwing down an authoritative one-handed jam sideways!
But the main reason for Yao’s success has to be his increased confidence after seeing how much his team needed him during his 21-game absence. When you realize your team is better with you in the lineup than not, you tend to play a lot looser and relaxed knowing a mistake or two isn’t going to kill your team.
In the first half against Orlando, Yao scored 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting, giving the Rockets a 44-39 lead. T-Mac was also a stud in the first half, hitting 5-of-10 shots and scoring 14. But the rest of the way, T-Mac struggled, making only 1-of-6 field goals and scoring 5 points.
Yao picked up the slack for T-Mac in the third quarter, scoring 13 points – 7 points coming from the free throw line.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Rockets opened up a 20-point lead (74-54), and it looked like the Rockets were going to cruise to an easy victory. But then Orlando went on a 25-8 run – thanks to lots of free throws – and pulled within three points with 1:21 remaining when Hedot Turkoglu hit a three-pointer from the corner to make it 82-79, Houston.
But an unlikely hero, Juwan Howard (12 points on 6-of-12 shooting), hit a cold-blooded baseline jumper on the following possession to push Houston’s lead to five points and was able to hold on the rest of the way.
I’m not too concerned the Rockets have been blowing big leads lately. If they were leading the Western Conference and were looking to tune every facet of their game for the playoffs, it would be a different story. But the Rockets are just trying to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs, and I will take a ‘W’ any way I can get it.
And with the Lakers losing to Boston by one point Sunday night, the Rockets are now only 3 games behind LA for the 8th and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Amazing the Rocket have gotten themselves back into the hunt.
The only problem is that on Monday night at Toyota Center the Rockets play a back-to-back and face the sizzling Phoenix Suns, winners of 6 games in a row and the team that handed the Rockets their worst loss of the season just 10 days ago, 109-75.
Unfortunately, I probably won’t be able to file a report for that game since Monday is my wife’s birthday. For you married guys out there, you know how bad of a move it would be for me to stay home and watch that game versus taking my wife to dinner on such a special day.
If history is any indicator, it won’t matter much that I miss that game since it could be over by the third quarter. But just in case they surprise me, I’m going to record it.
To see the boxscore from the game, click here.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s article about the game, click here.