As great as it was to see Yao Ming return to the court Monday night and score 16 points, grab 11 boards, and block 2 shots (close to my prediction of 17 points, 9 boards and 2 blocks), it also brought back some not-so-great memories – seeing Yao get physically abused and the refs not calling fouls against his defender(s).
It happened again in Cleveland, this time in a crucial part of the game. The score was tight: 86-82 on the Rockets’ end of the court with 1:02 remaining. Yao had grabbed a long rebound around the free throw line, took one dribble toward an undefended basket, and had a great chance of scoring.
That’s when Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas threw his body in front of Yao with a half-hearted attempt to swipe the ball away. Ilgauskas fell to the floor in front of Yao in what the Cleveland TV announcer described as an NFL-like “chop block” (which is illegal, by the way), and forced Yao to topple to the court and lose possession of the ball. Thank God that Yao was able to fall and avoid landing on his rehabilitated knee.
However, no foul was called. Instead, play continued, Cleveland pushed the ball up the court and LeBron James capped off the fast break with an alley-oop slam to make the score 88-82 with 57 seconds remaining, which was too big of a deficit for the Rockets to overcome.
It’s only fitting that Yao’s return to action would remind us of how little respect he still gets from the refs. Yao even said after the game that it was a bad no-call, but he wasn’t going to contest it because he knew the team couldn’t afford for him to get a technical foul. That no-call was incompetence at its finest. Just as ridiculous was LeBron saying after the game that “it was a great steal.”
I’m so frustrated, I could rant for paragraphs about it, but I’ll move on.
Before the fourth quarter when the Rockets got to that crucial juncture, it was a frustrating game all-around for Yao. Through 3 quarters he was 2-for-11 from the field. It was obvious his shot was rusty because of his loss of conditioning over the past 32 games he had missed.
Yao started the game 0-for-5 in the first quarter in five minutes of action, but he did show his passing skills were as sharp as ever, throwing an underhanded scoop pass through a double-team to Chuck Hayes for a layup.
What hurt the Rockets just as much was that T-Mac had made only 1-of-6 shots in the first quarter (5-of-20 shots through three quarters), and missed his first 2 free throws to start the game.
Despite the horrific shooting from both Yao and T-Mac, both teams shot 8-of-23 in that first quarter, with Houston holding a 20-19 lead at the end of the first, thanks to a poorly shot 3-pointer by Rafer Alston that luckily banked off the glass for the basket.
At the start of the second quarter, Yao had the ball stolen from him (one of the five turnovers he would commit). But with about 11:20 remaining in the second, Yao scored his first bucket after receiving a nice bounce pass from Luther Head in the paint.
He went on to miss another 4 shots and finished the first half 1-of-9 from the field. The Rockets trailed 43-33 after actually having the lead earlier in the second quarter.
To show what Houston had in store for them from the refs, the last 3 points that Cleveland scored before halftime was bogus. Having solid position on the court, Shane Battier had his hands straight up in the air, Lebron barely jumped into one of those arms, scored and was “fouled” for a three-point play. Bogus. A 7’6″ superstar like Yao gets no respect, while a 6’9″ like LeBron does.
It was amazing the Rockets were down only 10 points at halftime because T-Mac had shot 2-for-13 by that time, which was worse than Yao.
The Cleveland lead ballooned to 14 points at the beginning of the third quarter, but the Rockets were able to cut it to 60-55. However, Lebron squashed their comeback attempt by hitting a three-pointer to push the lead to 8, and by the end of the third, the Rockets were still down 68-57, thanks to the Cavs outscoring the Rockets 15-1 in fast break points in the third quarter alone, and 10-1 in points off turnovers as well.
In the fourth quarter, Yao got off to a good start. He made 3-of-4 of his shots. One of those shots being a dunk off a beautiful backdoor pass from T-Mac for slam (pictured above).
But Cleveland was still able to build a 14-point lead in the fourth. Thankfully, T-Mac finally got it going, hitting 5-of-12 shots and scoring 12 points to help the Rockets battle back before that critical non-call against Ilgauskas.
After the game, Yao knew he had to cut down in the future on the 5 turnovers he had. Obviously, so did Van Gundy, who said, “He’s got to cut down on his turnovers. We can’t play well if he goes right back to what he was doing before he got hurt, which is being a high turnover guy. It’s impossible to have offensive rhythm.”
When I saw Yao put that dribble down before Ilgauskas ran into him for the no-call, there was a part of me that wished he had played it safe and just shot it from where he picked it up at the free throw line to reduce the chance of something bad happening, which did. But once he gets accustomed to the court again, I’ll bet he’ll settle for the safer option the next time that situation arises.
Despite all the adversity he faced, at least Yao was encouraged. After the game, he said, “I felt the team played with high energy in the fourth quarter and I could feel the energy of my teammates. I can’t wait for the next game.”
That game will be Wednesday night in Boston where the Rockets hope to get payback after a devastating loss against the Celtics last week, a game they would have won if Yao had been in the lineup.