I know it might be getting old, but I just cannot believe how much Yao Ming continues to impress me. It takes a LOT for me to say that. Not since Hakeem Olajuwon have I had chills run down my spine like I have the past few weeks seeing what I have been seeing Yao do.
With the Rockets’ season slowly turning into a big disappointment having lost their last 3 games they arguably should have won, Yao came out against the LA Clippers, said enough is enough, and came out and dominated once again with a 32-point, 10 rebound, and season-high 5-assist masterpiece to win it 108-103. And he did it while experiencing some stomach problems after eating something that didn’t agree with him in LA on Saturday. After the game, he joked the stomach problem may have helped him. But it’s not like he was struggling and needed something physical to whack him out of it, like T-Mac ‘s concussion a couple of weeks ago.
I was lucky enough to go to the game in LA and witness his dominance in person. At first I was disappointed the Rockets didn’t come out and blowout a struggling 10-12 Clippers team, especially after losing in broken-hearted fashion against the Lakers, Warriors and Lakers their past 3 games. The score was only 26-26 after the first quarter, with Yao scoring 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting. I was hoping it would be something like 26-16.
Yao’s first score came from a right-handed heave after jumping into the air, getting fouled by Chris Kaman, and banking it amazingly off the glass. It was a sign of what was ahead for Yao.
In that second quarter, Yao scored another 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and Bonzi Wells finally got going – after missing his first four jumpers of the game – by taking it to the rack for a dunk. I said to myself, “it’s about time,” since I have felt Bonzi can get things going earlier if he doesn’t settle for outside shots.
By halftime, the Rockets actually trailed by one point 46-45. But the way the Rockets had blown big leads recently, maybe it was good for them to be involved in a tight game where it would be harder for them to lose their concentration. One key stat that kept them in the game was an extremely low number of turnovers by halftime – only four (and 9 by the end of the game)!
I don’t know what Jeff Van Gundy said at halftime in the locker room, but the Rockets came out in the third quarter and scored their largest number of points in a third quarter this season, a nice turn of events for once.
Rafer Alston came out and took what the defense gave him – open 3-pointers since the Clippers were collapsing down low on him. He got hot and hit 3-of-4 treys to score 11 points in the third, giving the Rockets a somewhat comfortable 79-71 lead.
Entering the fourth quarter, I had a sinking feeling that maybe the Rockets were going to squander this lead like they had done the previous two games against Golden State and the Lakers. After all, other than Yao, who else had stepped up in crunch time during their 3-game losing streak?
It turned out to be a committee of four players: Yao, Alston, Juwan Howard, and yes, finally….Bonzi Wells.
Rafer pumped in 9 points, thanks in part by taking it strong to the hole a couple of times with 3 minutes remaining to score on two consecutive possessions, including a sweet crossover move to get into the lane to put up a twirling hook shot. Until T-Mac is back, it’s aggressive moves like that which the Rockets need more of during clutch time, and for which I have criticized him in the past. Rafer finished with 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting, 3-of-6 treys, 7-of-8 free throws, 8 assists and only two turnovers. You have to give Alston a lot of credit for bouncing back after that 8-of-22 shooting, 7 turnover atrocity against the Lakers Friday night. I’ll get off his back if he gets a line like that every game.
Yao scored six points in the fourth quarter, which is no surprise there. But his biggest basket came when the Rockets, only leading 100-96 with a little over a minute remaining, had to score to keep the Clippers from getting too close for comfort as they continued their run. Yao hit a huge fallaway jumper than silenced the crowd. Actually, it made them oooh and aahhh, which I love hearing in an opposing team’s gym when the crowd watches a great player making a back breaking play.
The Rockets got lucky a couple possessions later. Leading 102-98 with a little over 30 seconds remaining, they were very disorganized and almost turned the ball over two or three different times on a helter-skelter possession, but were fortunately bailed out when Luther Head got fouled. Head ended up making 1-of-2 free throws to make it 103-98. After that, Rafer hit two free throws with 14.7 seconds remaining after being fouled intentionally, and that was essentially the ballgame.
Other key contributors during the fourth quarter was Juwan Howard, who scored four of his 9 points in the quarter, including a baseline jumper with 2:09 remaining that gave them a 100-92 cushion.
Last but not least, Bonzi scored 6 points in the fourth on 3-of-4 shooting, including a spot-up jumper where he was able to create his own shot, get an easy dunk after chasing down a loose ball in the backcourt, and a layup after getting a beautiful dish from Yao – a night where Yao created so much opportunity for his teammates that they didn’t squander.
When asked about his season-high assist count (5), Yao responded, “Actually, I watched a lot of film from last year. They double team quick and hard on the catch so I knew I had to know where my teammates were.”
I asked him after the game if he was tired after playing so many minutes against the Warriors and Lakers, and he responded: “Today was my shortest game of the past three games. Thirty-eight minutes is not too hard for me, and also my teammates today did so many great jobs. Help me on defense, share the pressure on offense. They know when they (the Clippers) came to double team, they cut to the basketball very fast, very well, right on time. When I hit them, they scored. Just harder to guard.”
Other tidbits from the game:
I have been to several arenas around the league, and I have to say the Staples Center is one of the best. Very clean and beautiful concourses.
I had the good fortune to sit next to the Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen for the entire game on press row. Jonathan really knows the game, and very personable, too. I got to know him during training camp in Austin. Classy guy.
Yao and John Lucas were giddy in the locker room after the game about the day off they were getting on Monday.