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Monday, November 13, 2006

Yao Dominates Shaq, Rockets Roll Over Heat, 94-72

Shaquille O'Neal just won his fourth NBA title but his claim to the title of most dominant center in the NBA looks increasingly tenuous. Yao Ming put up 34 points and 14 rebounds in a 94-72 Houston win over Miami, while O'Neal managed to contribute just 15 points and 10 rebounds; Yao shot 11-19 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line, while Shaq shot 6-14 and 3-9 respectively from those areas. Tracy McGrady only scored 12 points on 6-18 shooting but he had a game-high eight assists. Most of his assists came in the fourth quarter, when Houston outscored Miami 34-16. Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy liked what he saw from his superstar guard: "When Mac is attacking, he's as good a playmaker as there is in the league. I don't know how he sees what he sees, but I'm sure glad he sees what he sees because I can't see what he sees." Meanwhile, McGrady enjoys no longer having to shoulder the entire scoring load by himself: "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." During ESPN's telecast, Greg Anthony reported that McGrady--averaging just 18.5 ppg coming into the contest--does not feel physically up to the task of being a dominant scorer at this stage of the season. McGrady said that it is not a matter of conditioning; it's just that his body is not quite where he wants it to be yet. I'm not sure if I understand the distinction that he is making, but McGrady is moving well and does not seem hindered in any way. As long as Yao can be this productive there is really no need for McGrady to be firing from all angles at all times; he can save that for when the team hits a lull and needs that kind of production from him.

On November 4, Yao had 36 points and six rebounds in a 107-76 win over the Dallas Mavericks, so the Rockets have defeated last year's NBA Finals participants by a combined 53 points in the past week. Granted, Miami and Dallas are off to slow starts but Houston's success with a healthy Yao and T-Mac should not really surprise anyone; the Rockets were on pace for a 55-plus win season last year if you just count the games in which both All-Stars played.

Yao has always been a highly skilled big man, but the new element in his game--which started to appear in earnest in the second half of last season--is what ESPN analyst Allan Houston described as "a mean streak." That toughness and aggressiveness is the only thing that Yao used to lack but he seems to have it now. Last season, when I spoke with Patrick Ewing--who was then a Rockets' assistant coach charged with the task of working with the team's big men--I asked him what he tells Yao to get him to play with the same aggression and passion for which Ewing was legendary. Ewing replied, "First of all, you have to be confident. You have to believe in yourself. That is one thing that I tell Yao: ‘No matter what happens, believe in yourself and never doubt yourself.’ I think that Yao is going to be a great player. He has great offensive skills and he just has to believe in himself and dominate."

Miami took an early 15-8 lead and O'Neal was very active, posting up Yao and benefitting from nice feeds from Wade and Antoine Walker. Yao got off to a slow start, only making one of his first five shots but that one was a beauty: Yao cut the lead to 15-10 by catching the ball on the left block, turning to face Shaq, driving to the middle and hitting a jump hook. This move displayed a combination of fluidity, quickness and aggressiveness that Yao simply did not have when he came into the league. Yao is also a fine passer; his assist totals do not always reflect this, because he often makes the pass that leads to the assist, but there is no denying that Yao has great court vision. Miami led 25-22 at the end of the first quarter.

Each team scored 17 points in the second quarter, but Yao showed some flashes of how he would later take over the game. He hit a jump hook over Alonzo Mourning to pull the Rockets within 33-32 at the 5:36 mark, prompting ESPN game analyst Greg Anthony to note that on that possession Yao moved back and forth from block to block before he caught the ball and scored, something that he would not have had the stamina to do in past seasons. Yao scored on post moves over Mourning on the next two possessions, giving Houston a 36-35 lead, but Miami rallied and led 42-39 at halftime after Wade's tip dunk just before the buzzer. Yao had 14 points in the first half, while Wade led Miami with 16.

Yao scored six points early in the third quarter as Houston took a 47-46 lead. Yao did not score again until the fourth quarter but the Rockets received contributions from a variety of sources and outscored the Heat 21-14 and were ahead 60-56 going into the fourth quarter.

Yao took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points, using a wide array of moves. The whole Miami team could only muster 16 fourth quarter points but the Rockets did not turn the game into a blowout until fairly late. Houston took its first double digit lead (76-66) at the 5:21 mark. Antoine Walker's layup cut the margin back to eight but after that the Rockets relentlessly increased their advantage.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:17 AM


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At Monday, November 13, 2006 4:38:00 PM, Anonymous 808blogger said...

As an avid basketball fan, it was a true rarity to see two top traditional centers battling it out on the hardwood. Yes, Yao vs Shaq has happened over ten times already, but this game was really the marquee fight we've been waiting for. Last year, Yao and Shaq did not play each other due to both their injuries. So much of the nation did not realize how much Yao has progressed. If Yao and Shaq had played last year, I think the statistical outcome would've been the same: Yao having the better stats. And in addition people would start to realize that Yao has blossomed into a dominant center. But we didn't get to see that, not until last night. I hope this really changes the perception of Yao Ming as a basketball player and as a person. People label him soft and lacking the drive. I follow the Rockets religioiusly, and I knew that that notion simply wasn't true. However, much of the nation didn't know that, they blindly followed what SportsCenter showed them every night: people dunking on Yao. After last night's game, I hope some opinions on Yao have changed. He is not soft and he definitely does not lack passion for the game. His teammates know this, and now I hope the rest of the nation knows this as well.

At Tuesday, November 14, 2006 5:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

If Yao and T-Mac stay healthy, this Rockets team will be quite formidable. The traditional template for an NBA champion is having a dominant center, an outstanding perimeter player and good role players. Obviously, the Rockets have been constructed in this fashion.


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