By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted May 1 2009 7:52AM
HOUSTON -- Long before he was walking on air in celebration, Yao Ming was diving down onto the floor in determination.
Before he walked off the court and practically swept Dikembe Mutombo off his crutches in a bearhug, Yao Ming was sprinting back against a fastbeak to block a layup by Steve Blake.
The biggest man had the biggest burden and Yao's was like the Great Wall of China -- they say you can see it from outer space.
Six previous seasons in the NBA and he had never won a Playoff series. Two prior painful experiences with Game 7s and he didn't want to go there again.
"It will be different tonight," Yao had said about an hour before the opening tip, as he sat in front of his locker with a heat pad draped over his right shoulder. "It will be different."
And it was.
After a dirty dozen years, the Rockets threw off the yoke of frustration with a 92-76 win on Thursday night to wrap up a 4-2 first-round victory over the Portland Trail Blazers that exorcised a city's demons and their All-Star center's torment.
The last time the Rockets franchise had advanced out of the first round of the Playoffs, the names on the back of the Houston jerseys read: Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley. It was 1997, before most of the world outside of Asia had even heard of the 7-foot-6 kid from Shanghai. It was three years before he had his coming out party of sorts at the Sydney Olympics, five years before the Rockets would make him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft and a more than a decade before he would finally get to bob his head to the music, pump his left fist in a joyous salute to the crowd in his adopted hometown.
"That's a big step for me," Yao said. "It tastes great. When the clock is running down, I'm still not believing that's coming true...It is the biggest win in my NBA career until now."
In a close, tense series that always felt like the Rockets were tiptoeing across a tightrope, this was the dam finally breaking. Ron Artest came out of his offensive slumber to pour in 27 points. The Houston bench of Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry and Von Wafer ignited a second-quarter explosion. And standing in the middle of it all was Yao, toiling to his third straight double-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.
The Rockets overcame the brilliance of Brandon Roy, the pogo stick talent of LaMarcus Aldridge and the one-two defense punch tandem of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden in the middle. And they did it right from the start when the largest man on the floor found no hustle play beneath him to make.
"When the big fella shows that energy, when he's on the floor, when he's running, that lifts up everybody," said Shane Battier, who also got out of the first round for the first time in his eight-year career. "I think the crowd gets energized and they see how much Yao wants it. You can't do anything but play harder when you see the big fella motoring down and playing both ends of the floor.
"Yao's got a lot of pressure on him. More pressure than anyone in this room can ever understand, coming from his homeland. He carries the dreams of an entire 1.2 billion (people) nation on his shoulders. As much as the fans in Houston want to get to the second round, 1.2 billion people also wanted him to get to the second round. This is his team and he can be proud that he finally got the monkey off his back."
When at long last it happened, the Rockets reveled in their success as the clock ran down and the seconds ticked away. During the final minute, while Yao stood by the bench, Artest chased down a loose ball beyond the baseline, wound up six rows deep in the stands and stayed there for a while to celebrate.
"Well, I've been in the stands before," Artest said sheepishly, his grin referring to the 2004 incident at the Palace of Auburn Hills when he fought with fans. "It was home court this time. I wanted to soak it in. I had to sit down. Actually a guy offered me some beer. When he did that, I was like, I'm gonna sit down and enjoy this. He's not throwing it at me. I was gonna take a sip, but there was too many cameras."
Yao listened to Artest and howled with laughter. This was the joyous payoff that came after seven seasons of waiting. This was the release that came from knowing the Rockets would not have to board a plane for another trip to Portland and another Game 7. Yao was there in 2004 when his team held a 2-0 lead on Dallas coming home in the first round and wound up getting thumped by 40 in Game 7. He was there in 2007, when the Rockets blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost Game 7 on their home floor to Utah.
"I can tell you that I do feel the pressure," Yao said after a long, deep sigh. "I have an example. Usually I take a nap before the game in the afternoon. But today I was waking up an hour and a half before I usually wake up. I think about the game plan and those technical problems even while I'm asleep. Seriously."
He'd listened to the questions and doubts in his waking hours and he'd been chased by the nagging reminders of first-round failure even in the REM cycle. Finally, it was a time to smile, a time to laugh, a time to leave all of the old baggage in the past.
"There's new meaning right now," Yao said. "We need to get an entire new mindset to get a new goal, which is: Keep going."
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