With the enormity of the viewing audience for the Rockets-Bucks game on Friday night (for obvious reasons), it’s almost impossible to write anything here worthy of matching the size of the Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian fan base in China. But I’ll try my best.
Watching the game, it felt a lot like a playoff atmosphere (try a few Super Bowls all rolled up into one) and you could sense that both Yao and Yi felt the eyes of the world on them.
I guess Yao was a little nervous, only hitting 1-of-6 shots in the first quarter, most of them around the rim, including a missed dunk that caromed out of bounds. But as much as Yao struggled on offense, he was very good on defense, coming up with 2 blocks in the first quarter and numerous intimidations. He also didn’t foul that much, never getting in foul trouble, and finishing the game with only two personals.
He also had an amazing assist when, from the high post, he dribbled it toward the basket, drew a double-team, which left Chuck Hayes open on the other side of the lane, then whipped a pass over his head and defender to Hayes, who was moving toward the basket, and Hayes laid it in! Dribbling and then passing for an assist? I hadn’t seen a dime like that from Yao in a long, long time. When he’s comfortable, I love to see Yao play in the high post. You really get to see his creativity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since his “no-look pass” days of his rookie season.
After Yao’s “real” opponent for the game (not Yi, but Andrew Bogut) picked up his second foul, Yao was able to get rolling. Yao made 3-of-3 shots in the second quarter and hit all 4 of his free throw attempts as the Rockets went on a scoring run to take a 14-point lead. However, the Bucks were feisty and were able to cut it to 48-41 by halftime.
At the half, Yao had 14 points and 3 blocks. He could have had more points if the Rockets’ passers hadn’t thrown 3 bad passes in a row to him that were over his head or too difficult to catch.
Meanwhile, Yi struggled throughout the first half. On one possession when he was in-bounding the ball underneath his own basket, Shane Battier picked off his pass in mid-air, put up a shot toward the rim, and Yi was called for goaltending trying to block the shot. It was an embarrassing turnover for the rookie, but no rookie or veteran is immune to them. He just had 200 million countrymen back home witnessing it.
Offensively, Yi hit only 1-of-3 shots in the first half. But the shot he did make, a long two-pointer, drew ooohs and aaahs from the Houston crowd. He has beautiful shooting form, but it was very strange to see a power forward with his height shooting it from the perimeter so much. I can understand Robert Horry doing it at the age of 37 since he doesn’t have much athleticism in him, but Yi’s only 20 years old. I read somewhere that’s how the Milwaukee coach wants to play him.
In the second half, you could see some of the reasons why Yi was picked 6th in this year’s draft. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, including a three-pointer. However, one of his long two-pointers was an accidental bank shot that went in, and another bucket was an alley-oop. He also dribbled it off his foot on one possession, leading to a fast break the other way. But in the fourth quarter, he hit a big 3-pointer that cut the Bucks’ deficit to two points, 84-82.
Yi has a bit of Dirk Nowitzki-ness about him: nice long-range shot, can handle the ball and get to the basket okay, but he seems to be a lot better defensively than Dirk because of how long and quick he is.
But Yao was the man who showed Yi what he may one day become. Yao was great in the fourth quarter, hitting 2-of-4 shots and making 7-of-7 from the free throw line for 11 points. Taking away the 1-for-6 shooting in the first quarter (which were mainly blown shots up close), Yao’s fadeaway jumpers were automatic tonight, and so pure. They kind of reminded me of Hakeem Oluajuwon‘s during the championship years where Dream’s fadeaways were money in the bank. Moreoever, those two shots he made in the fourth quarter came at times when no one on the Houston offense was able to step up.
Yao finished with 28 points (14-of-14 from the line!), 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and only two turnovers. I can only imagine what fantasy leaguers around the country are saying when they see that line from Yao, especially that free throw stat!
Yao also played the most consecutive minutes I’ve ever seen him play. He played the entire first quarter along with about ½ of the second quarter before checking out of the game for the first time.
There really wasn’t much one-on-one between Yao and Yi because they don’t play the same position. However, Yao did block one of Yi’s shots in the second half.
I haven’t even talked about Tracy McGrady in this game. With the magnitude of this game in China, it’s hard to believe that McGrady can be considered just a sideshow to the main act, but he was, and he didn’t try to steal the show from his Big Man. You have to be very impressed with McGrady’s stats in this game: He didn’t take a crazy number of shots (18), and he made a good percentage of them (50%). He was also a key facilitator in getting the ball to Yao and Shane Battier (3 assists on 3 three-pointers) with 8 assists overall, and he had a monster jam midway through the third quarter where he took the ball down the lane into the teeth of the defense, elevated, and threw it down one-handed!
When the Bucks cut their deficit to 86-82 and the Rockets’ shooters struggling, McGrady hit a huge 3-pointer with 5:31 remaining in the fourth quarter to push the lead to 89-82. That was part of an 11-0 run that pushed the Rockets lead to 95-82 with 3:27 remaining when Shane Battier hit a baseline jumper
Not to take anything away from Battier (15 points, 8 boards, 3 treys, 2 blocks), the third player who is really helping the Rockets more than any of the two superstars is Bonzi Wells. After scoring 14 points and grabbing 15 boards on Tuesday night against San Antonio, he was amazing again, getting big rebounds and scoring on low-post moves that were reminiscent of Charles Barkley. He had 9 points in the first half, 9 more in the second half, 7 boards, an assist, a steal, and two blocks. I swear I thought he had more steals and blocks than that because he was all over the place. I think Yao gave Bonzi the ultimate compliment after the game in an interview, comparing Bonzi’s game to a “nuclear bomb.” I kind of like that…”Bonzi the Bomber.” At this rate, he could win 6th Man of the Year as well as Comeback Player of the Year all in the same season!
The main disappointment in the game for the Rockets was Rafer Alston and Mike James having bad shooting nights. They both missed 2-of-10 field goals, both were 1-of-6 from three-point territory (ouch!), both had 5 rebounds, but James out-assisted Alston 5-2, and Alston played 7 less minutes. At the rate Alston is going both offensively and defensively, Steve Francis could get his shot to play very, very soon. At least you know James’ shot will come back. Alston’s shot has never really been there. Sometimes he can hit a few, but it always goes back to becoming inconsistent, at best.
There were some other things about this game that I want to comment on, but I’ll probably save it for tomorrow since I’m so tired right now. Watching a game this big can wear you out, especially after a long work week.