The dominance of Yao we saw last year is back. Yao had put up decent numbers this season before Friday night’s game against the Knicks at Toyota Center. He had a monster game against Dallas 4 games ago at home, but since then, he had averaged “only” 21.3 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block.
Returning home after a three-game road trip, Yao put up the amazing numbers we loved seeing so much last season. Friday night’s line:
35 points, 17 rebounds, 7 blocks
If he does that well Sunday night against Miami and Shaq on Sunday night on ESPN, he should win Player of the Week honors.
Yao abused Eddy Curry and the rest of the Knick front line all night. It was clear that Curry didn’t want to have anything to do with Yao, putting up very little defense on most possessions. The Knicks also opted not to double-team him much.
Yao took advantage of it, hitting uncontested fallaway jumpers and layups most of the night, and started by scoring 10 of the Rockets first 12 points of the game. He even hustled down the court a couple of times for a dunk and layup.
Midway through the second quarter, he had 14 points and 5 blocks. On defense, he was even smart enough to back off of Curry and “pull the chair” from him to make him tumble to the floor and call a timeout. The trick that several players had pulled on Yao in previous seasons is now part of his own repertoire. He does it all.
As strong as Yao and the Rockets looked by shooting 50% in the first half, they still only led 51-46 with a couple of seconds remaining before halftime. Dribble penetration by the Knick guards had broken down the Rockets’ offense on numerous occasions, keeping the game somewhat close. But Tracy McGrady gave the Rockets the wider margin they deserved by hitting a fallaway 3-pointer off the glass at the buzzer!
By that time, Yao had 18 points to go along with those 5 blocks.
Yao continued his onslaught by hitting a fallaway jumper in the lane to start the second half. The Rockets continued to roll, and opened up an 18-point lead with 7:30 remaining when Chuck Hayes blocked Jamal Crawford ‘s shot, which started a fast break where Rafer Alston threw it to T-Mac at the top of the three-point line for a dagger!
McGrady, who had started the game 0-for-5, made 4 of his next five shots to give Yao some help, and the Rockets were cruising into the fourth quarter with an 82-66 lead.
But just like their previous game against Milwaukee, the Rockets couldn’t put the Knicks away in the fourth quarter. Houston turned the ball over four times in the first 3 ½ minutes of the quarter while New York scored 6 straight points.
But just like the Milwaukee game, Alston came threw when the Rockets were reeling and scored on a tough hook shot at the baseline to stop the bleeding. But the Knicks still kept it close, and with a little over 3 minutes remaining in the game and the Rockets only up by 8 points, Alston came through again with a HUGE buzzer-beating 3-pointer a couple of feet behind the three-point line to give them a 95-84 cushion.
I bashed Alston plenty of times last season, but I have to give him props for playing pretty well in this young season. He has hit big shots and is hitting a respectable 39% from three-point territory this season, with many of those shots being hit during clutch moments. Skip-to-my-Lou finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. If he continues to play at this rate, he could become a candidate for most improved player of the year.
Back to the game…the Rockets led 99-86 with about 2 minutes remaining after Yao hit a jump shot, and it looked like the game was in hand. But within 45 seconds, the Knicks had gone on a 7-0 run to cut it to 99-93 with 1:15 remaining, a run that included an amazing rebound and dunk by 5’9” Nate Robinson which even got Houston fans sitting behind the goal out of their seats!
On the Rockets’ ensuing possession, Yao had the ball and Robinson came by and hacked him on the arm as he was passing to Alston (no foul was called), which made the pass go off line and made Alston mishandle it and the ball went loose. A mad scramble occurred, with the Rockets desperately needing to gain possession since they couldn’t afford to have New York score again. That’s when Alston dove to the floor for the ball, knocked it to another Rocket to save possession, and T-Mac was fouled and drained two free throws to make it 101-93 with 48.7 seconds remaining.
Then on the next possession, Stephon Marbury missed a free throw that could have made it 101-95, and Yao grabbed the rebound. But once again, Robinson mugged Yao and slapped him purposely in the face. A technical should have been called, but it wasn’t. Very quickly Robinson has showed to me he’s a bit of a thug by playing so physical. He better be careful, or he’s going to get hurt one day.
After the hack in the face, Yao kept his cool, and drained two free throws to make it 103-94 to put the game out of reach, and finish with an incredible night 35 points on 15-of-21 shooting.
Although Yao committed 8 turnovers, you can’t complain much considering the other columns in his boxscore.
Speaking of boxscore, the Rockets had all five starters plus Luther Head score in double-figures, with all players shooting 54.8% collectively. Luther, who was sort of the “forgotten man” during all the preseason hype about new players joining the team (Steve Novak, Vassilis Spanoulis, Shane Battier, Kirk Snyder, Bonzi Wells) continues to amaze from three-point territory, hitting 3-of-4 shots.
And Chuck Hayes (10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, 6 rebounds) continued to impress on offense. One of those scores was a whirling dervish spin move in the lane for a layup that would leave even LeBron James impressed.
Battier (12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 5 assists) was also huge, blocking out and tipping a rebound to Yao late in the game on a key possession. But my most favorite play of Shane’s was when he took a charge with 6 minutes remaining, and the entire Rocket bench got up to salute him! When teammates are applauding each other for taking a charge, you know the defense that Jeff Van Gundy is emphasizing must be working.
I could keep going on with this game and Yao’s dominance, but I’ll stop here and recommend you read some of the quotes from Yao in this Houston Chronicle story.