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Art Garcia

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Rockets' fate still bright despite loss of Yao

By Art Garcia,
Posted May 11 2009 7:23AM

HOUSTON -- With the help of a cane, Dikembe Mutombo sauntered up to Yao Ming in the locker room long before tipoff Sunday afternoon.

"That's my guy," Mutombo bellowed in that familiar deep voice with the consistency of sandpaper. "He joined my club."

"What club is that?" shot back Yao, sitting back with his left leg propped up in a chair. "Old?"

Yao would gladly trade injured for age and suits for uniforms right now. The cruel joke, one running for the last four years, landed at Yao's feet again. He's done for the Playoffs after team doctors found a small hairline fracture on the top of his left foot Saturday night.

The Rockets aren't done. At least not yet. Two days after recapturing control of the Western Conference semifinals against a healthy Yao and a chirping Ron Artest, the Lakers were the ones left battered and bruised.

The one West series with any real intrigue just got juicer after Houston tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2 with an out-of-nowhere 99-87 blowout at the Toyota Center. The semifinal now shifts to Los Angeles for Game 5 on Tuesday night, with a return to Houston guaranteed Thursday.

"This was the effort we expected," said Shane Battier, one of many Rockets to step up in Yao's place. "I don't know about the result."

The center-less Rockets treated their red-clad faithful to the kind of show they've seen so often under these circumstances. This is a franchise so versed in overcoming adversity that no one really mentions Tracy McGrady anymore. Injuries are part of the game and, unfortunately, Houston's fabric.

"Only a team can win a game," Yao reminded. "Not one person. No one is above the team."

Houston bolted out of the gates to take a 10-point lead five minutes into Game 4. Battier was raining down 3-pointers and Aaron Brooks was the roadrunner to Los Angeles' coyote. The spread reached 17 later in the first quarter, 19 in the second and a ridiculous 29 at the end of the third.

The Lakers didn't get much out of anyone other than Bryant and Pau Gasol, and even those two didn't do much through three quarters. Still, the Rockets' ever-growing lead felt like fractured foot's gold. Kobe was seemingly pacing himself to author another dramatic comeback, stealing the show and Houston's will to continue. It never happened.

Houston just kept coming and coming, executing the pick-and-roll to perfection and playing with a free-and-easy vibe that left the Lakers flatfooted. Brooks rolled up a postseason career-high 34 points, nailing 12-of-20 shots, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.

"He just cut us up," Bryant said after scoring 15. He averaged 35 in the first three games of the series.

Battier hit five 3-pointers en route to his playoff-best 23 points, and joked that he might frame the box score after outscoring Kobe. Luis Scola racked up his fifth career playoff double-double. Artest, the least-tenured and only healthy member of Houston's one-time Big Three, shot 4-of-19 but had 10 rebounds.

Jackson tried to warn this team before the game of the danger associated with a wounded animal. The Zen Master reached back into his personal archive, recanting the tale of his first title with Chicago. The Bulls needed one win to close out a Lakers squad without James Worthy and Byron Scott.

"We had a bear of a game," Jackson remembered.

Jackson said he isn't worried or concerned with the state of the Lakers, even though they could have effectively closed out Houston before returning to Southern California. Sometimes, he said, his team needs a "spark put in us to play." Maybe this was it.

The Lakers did leave Houston with the homecourt edge thanks to the split. There's just something about being 2-2 when 3-1 was there for the taking.

"We blew a great opportunity," Bryant said. "I've been on teams that made this dumb mistake before."

In terms of shock factor, the result Sunday matched the two-paragraph release announcing Yao's injury the night before. Yao, though, took the diagnosis in stride. He knew something was wrong during the second half of Game 3, despite the initial hope that the sprained ankle he suffered in the second quarter would be it.

Yao would have asked out had it been the regular season, but these are the Playoffs. The discomfort worsened during the third and fourth quarter -- he wasn't able to pinpoint exactly when -- before Yao checked out in the final minute.

"When the final results came out, I was not very surprised," Yao said. "Missing the rest of the season, I'm frustrated. You have to be positive. It's better than last year. It's already happened, so I look forward to the next step."

Though the prognosis is promising -- 8-12 weeks of rest/rehab and no surgery -- no one can be sure what that next step will bring. History and size aren't on Yao's side. Mavericks standout Dirk Nowitzki said not too long ago that the 82-game regular season is just too long.

It's exponentially longer and harder on those in excess of 7 feet. The pounding the league's big men take from each other and from the hardwood isn't natural. At some point, the stress catches up with everyone.

"A person in physics once told me if a man was 60-feet tall, the first step he'd take, he'd completely crumble," Jackson said. "Gravity is a bitch."

Jackson knows firsthand having dealt with hip and back issues after his career. At 7-foot-6, Yao is the closest the NBA has to a 60-footer. Coming into this season off foot surgery, that he missed only five games this season due to injury is a minor miracle. The tally the previous three seasons is 25, 34 and 27 missed games.

"He's played his tail off the whole year," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "He played 77 games, got us through the first round and to have this happen now. The good thing is in two months time he's going to be OK.

"That bodes well for the future for us, but you've got to feel for him. He's put a lot into this and to have that news, it was really heartbreaking for him. It was tough for all our players."

It's too soon for the Rockets to plan a course of action for Yao's future. Would it be smart to limit Yao's game during the regular season, regardless of injury, much as Phoenix does with Shaquille O'Neal? Yao is only 28 and, counting this regular season, he's had four relatively healthy years out of seven.

"I've been in harder situations before, much harder than this one," Yao said. "I can get through this one, too."

Yao never let the frustration show during an eight-minute session with media before the game. Decked out in a dark blue suit and light blue striped tie, he appeared at peace and accepting of the latest twist of fate.

"You have to stay positive," Yao said. "You still have a future."

Shockingly, so do the Rockets.

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.

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