The injury is also ironic given Adelman’s recent praise: “[Yao] didn’t have a chance last year to go to the Playoffs,” the coach reminisced before Game 2. “He was just playing really well when that [injury] happened and we were just figuring out how to use him. Now this year, you give him credit. He came into camp, and he’s been healthy, and he had that long summer with the Olympics. He had to rehab from the Olympics, come to training camp. And then Tracy [McGrady] comes in and gets hurt and Ron gets hurt, so he’s had to carry the load. And he’s been able to do it and stay healthy all year long. I think he’s only going to get better with these guys around him now, and we’re only going to figure out how to use him better and better. We’re just touching the surface.”
Game 5 is a 40-point blowout victory for the Lakers. It’s an exhibition in just how much the Rockets miss Yao. Without Yao’s size clogging up the middle, a struggling Andrew Bynum gets back on track immediately. With no post presence, the Rockets are relegated to a drive-and-kick jump shooting team that can’t buy a bucket. In fact, they give up 56 points in the paint, which is enough free paint to coat the brick house they’ve built on offense. Says defensive stalwart Shane Battier after the game, “When you’re hitting, it’s a great strategy, and when you’re not, you look like a fool.”
“We’re learning on the go now that Yao’s out,” Artest adds. “We gotta find a way to win…if it was easy, a caveman could do it.”
Perhaps inspired by cheesy Geico commercials, the Rockets win Game 6 with relative ease, in large part thanks to Scola assuming the role of post scorer in the first quarter. Unfortunately, without their stabilizing presence in the middle, they score only 12 first quarter points and get mauled again on the road in Game 7.
What the Rockets do prove throughout the series is that, health-permitting, they can come back next year and be a true title contender. With the full complement, Houston goes 10 deep, and that includes three guys who can create their own shot in one-on-one situations (Yao, Mac, Artest—if he’s re-signed), speed to break down the defense at the point guard position (Brooks, Kyle Lowry), all-world perimeter defenders (Battier, Artest), and a bevy of grind-it-out hustle guys who play tough defense and fill in whenever necessary (Scola, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes). Given what they’ve learned with and without their big man, the Rockets should come into next year looking forward to taking advantage of their impressive depth with rotation combinations that will give opponents fits.
It’s a good thing their leader has the right work ethic. “He’s always the first one at the gym,” Hayes says of Yao. “I don’t think people understand, that’s huge from your star player. He’s always the first one at practice and he’s the first one at the gym on game day to get up shots. His commitment to the game and to the team is probably second to none.“
While much of Yao Ming isn’t black and white, other than perhaps symbolically, this much is clear: when you have a back-to-the basket big man with a feathery touch and excellent passing skills, he needs to be the consistent focal point of the offense. Those in Clutch City would just be advised to pray that his feet work long enough to keep up his footwork, because a few healthy seasons from Yao will leave no ifs ands or buts about his place in the game.