Yao's fitness helps his game with Rockets
Shaq still stands as gold standard for NBA big men
MIAMI - This sort of thing had seemed over, part of the recent past before everyone moved on to the next story line.
Besides, the NBA had all but outlawed centers, anyway, reducing the annual showdowns of Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal from throwbacks to anachronisms.
The whole thing seemed very 2004, an era ago by sports standards.
They never met last season, while the Rockets crumbled and the Miami Heat, led by a blur of a guard, Dwyane Wade, rose to NBA champions.
But then Yao began this season on a roll and dismantled the Knicks on Friday. O'Neal came back from a bruised right knee Friday.
Suddenly, the Rockets game at Miami tonight, while offering the first test of a week stepping up in weight class, could give Yao a chance to measure himself against the reigning heavyweight champ.
"That's a big challenge," Yao said. "I like it. I think he is special. He is a totally special player. No man is like him. No player looks like him."
The same, of course, has been said of Yao. The top scoring center in the NBA this season and last, Yao's average of 26.2 points per game is a career high. His 59.6 percent shooting is better than any among the top 50 scorers.
Yao has been so effective, Tracy McGrady called himself a complementary player and repeatedly called Yao "the best center in the league," without forgetting who was waiting in Miami tonight.
"We all know Shaq's not what he used to be," McGrady said. "He doesn't move as quick as he used to, and he was out for a few games. He may be a little rusty.
"Hopefully, Yao will have that upper hand, stay out of foul trouble, get Shaq in foul trouble and we come out with a win.
"My man's come a long ways. He works extremely hard. He wants to be great."
The Rockets tend to celebrate Yao's development and success because they see the work he puts in to get there.
"He works harder than anyone on our team," Shane Battier said after Yao led Friday's win. "He stays late. Games like this don't happen by accident."
The next film sessions likely will focus on Yao's turnovers and ways to avoid the foul trouble that has slowed him on the Rockets' last road trip to New Orleans, Memphis and Milwaukee.
Yao had eight turnovers against the Knicks. New York's most effective defense was with 6-8 Renaldo Balkman working to beat Yao to position and guards rushing to surround him.
The Heat, with O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning, likely won't go as small. But in Wade, Gary Payton and James Posey, they have quick-handed defenders to harass him.
When asked if Friday's was Yao's best game, Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said: "In some areas, but in other areas, not. He'll continue to strive to do what he does really well and we're going to continue to strive to work on those areas that will help us if he can improve a little bit."
His turnovers and foul trouble are issues, but if Yao can force Miami to double-team him, it would open opportunities for teammates, chances the Rockets' need while McGrady is struggling with his shot.
"It's crazy to me because if I go out and have a subpar game and I don't shoot the ball well or play well and I get 13 points, every team I've been on, we're going to lose the game," McGrady said. "The role is kind of reversed now. I'm the distributor now and I like that role."
Even if O'Neal is not scoring the way he used to — he averaged 13.7 points in his three games — he commands double teams, and when Wade drives to the basket, defenders cannot leave O'Neal to help.
The Rockets are beginning to enjoy the same benefits and the hope it can stand up against the center Yao once called "the mountain in my way."
"He's really carrying us right now," guard Rafer Alston said.
He's doing what the top centers always have done, even if they are no longer fashionable.
BIG WEEK AHEAD
By the end of the week, the Rockets could be the league's foremost experts on the teams to be considered championship contenders — or part of the conversation themselves.
Beginning tonight in Miami, the Rockets play the past three NBA champions this week with the Heat tonight, the Spurs on Tuesday and the Pistons Saturday. They host the rising Bulls on Thursday.
"If we're going to be a team to reckon with and considered, you're going to have to play the best," guard Rafer Alston said. "Also, we have to beat them. If we do that, it makes a statement to the league, we are a serious bunch"
Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, however, said that other than preparing a game plan, the emphasis is on how the Rockets player, rather than who they play, especially so early in the season.
"I think every game is hard in this league, I really do," Van Gundy said. "Every team poses problems. You worry about the opponent because you have to play them, but we just have to play and try to improve. If we do that, play good basketball, don't turn it over 19 times, share it and work at it, that's what I want to see. Who we play, I'm not really concerned with at this point"
Though Tracy McGrady had just 10 points on Friday and is making just 39.6 percent of his shots, the Rockets praised him for his offensive play overall on Friday as a playmaker.
"The thing I like about Mac is if something's working, he'll just keep going to it," Jeff Van Gundy said.
"Tracy only got 12 looks (Friday), but Tracy shared the ball," Rockets guard Rafer Alston said. "He led us in assists. It shows what kind of player he is. When you have an unselfish star, you love it. He could have taken 24 shots. It's not like we don't have a bunch of plays to run for Tracy.
"When Tracy gets it going, the sky's the limit for us"
The Rockets' problem in the past two games, losing much of the big leads they built, might be not be too great a concern considering they might not be building many huge leads with the schedule they face this week. It also does indicate that they played well enough to lead by as much as 23 and 19 the past two games.
"It's better than the alternative," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "It's better to try to finish games (better) than explain how to come back from 20 down. But we need to tighten the ship, focus on finishing games. We're capable of doing it. But it's a mindset. We need to get the mindset better"
For the Rockets, who regularly started each half slowly last season, the fast starts do represents improvement. But even if they have leads not as great as against Milwaukee and New York, there was a sense that they could not let up after any run.
"The last two games, we were ready to play," center Yao Ming said. "We played very well at the beginning of the game and the beginning of the second half. But we cannot finish the game. When we play good teams like the San Antonio Spurs, like the next game against Miami, very successful teams, you cannot leave any chance for them. I don't know if we can get a lead, but if we get a lead, we cannot give any chance"