Despite Yao’s contention and humility, an official “changing of the guard” took place last night in Miami.
Yao dominated Shaq, scoring 34 points and 14 rebounds compared to Shaq’s 15 points and 10 boards. In my opinion, Yao is being too nice when he said the following after the Rockets 94-72 victory:
“He (Shaq) is the dominant center in this league, even at his age (34). He’s not the same in the regular season as he is in the playoffs. Like last year. If it was the playoffs, I would have seen a totally different Shaq. I would say the regular season doesn’t matter. Maybe one day I could meet him in the Finals.”
Yao forgets that Shaq’s NBA Finals performance last season was just so-so, averaging less than 14 points and scoring less than 10 points twice in the 6-game series. There’s almost no way that Yao would put up that low of numbers in a Finals the way he’s playing now. And he’s putting up bigger numbers than Shaq (14 ppg) all the time now.
The entire country — having access to watching the game nationally on ESPN – could see for themselves just how good Yao is. He’s hitting fallaway jumpers with consistency, hook shots in the lane, running the floor for layups, even throwing up tough left-handed shots while falling to the floor, and most of them are going in. 11-of-19 went in last night.
He’s also money from the line, which Shaq is definitely not. Yao made 12-of-13 free throws. It’s clear just how much of a force Yao is now in the league.
He’s also playing pretty good defense. After Shaq made his first 4 shots with relative ease against Yao, he only made 2-of-10 the rest of the way (6-of-14 was the final total).
Sure, Yao is not playing a perfect game. He still got blocked a couple of times, but he’s better than any other center in the league.
I even like how he’s keeping his cool. Shaq doesn’t like the notion of having been replaced as the NBA’s ‘best center’ or even ‘most dominant,’ so he threw a couple of shots at Yao that showed how much of a thug he can be. Battling for position for a rebound, Shaq threw an obvious elbow at Yao’s head that sent him falling to the floor in pain. Later he pushed Yao with his left arm while Yao was vulnerable in mid-air while going up for a rebound.
Yao didn’t lose his composure and retaliate against Shaq because of these cheap shots. I probably would have, but that just shows how much Yao is under control mentally of his game right now.
This game was also a statement game for the Rockets. They showed the world how good they are, beating the defending World Champions and extending their record to 5-2. And they are doing all of this with Tracy McGrady struggling from the floor.
T-Mac only hit 6-of-18 shots for 12 points, but he’s showing how great of a difference maker he can be by making excellent decisions with the ball and dishing out a game-high 8 assists.
Until T-Mac gets back to normal with his jump shot, I think he should just continue going to the rack to get easier shots, which he did a few times Sunday on some highlight reel plays.
As far as the other Rockets, most notable was Shane Battier continuing to make solid contributions with 11 points (5-of-10 shooting) and 3 assists. I remember seeing a couple of weeks ago the results of a survey of NBA General Managers asking them what was the most consequential trade during the off-season, and the Rockets acquisition of Battier for a draft day trade of Rudy Gay ranked #1. After seeing Battier play this season in the Rockets lineup, I think I would have to agree with them. I also think a lot of people who didn’t like that trade might have changed their mind by now.
Chuck Hayes also made his presence felt by battling hard for rebounds (6) and scoring on some nifty moves around the basket using the rim well to shield against getting his shot blocked. He did run into Shaq in the second half and hyperextended his left knee. Looking at the replay on TV, you can tell it really hurt. Hopefully he will be okay because they really need his garbageman mentality.
Juwan Howard came in to replace Hayes, and he did a pretty good job, 2-of-5 shots and grabbing four boards.
Luther Head continues to play extremely well, hitting 4-of-9 shots (3-of-6 treys) to score 11 points.
But the night belonged to Yao. Even T-Mac got caught up in the excitement after the game when he stated:
“The big fella is playing at his best. I don’t know if he can get better. He’s phenomenal out there, man.”
“Now, I know what it feels like to sit back and watch a great player right before your eyes. Guys I played with in the past got caught up in the moment of just watching something great. That’s what I’m doing right now, watching something great.”