INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 30 (Ticker) -- Jermaine O'Neal
helped give Yao Ming
a harsh introduction to the NBA.
O'Neal scored 24 points Wednesday and Yao struggled in his much-anticipated debut as the Indiana Pacers posted a season-opening 91-82 victory over the Houston Rockets, who wasted a career-high 39 points from Steve Francis.
Yao, the top overall pick in the June draft, entered to begin the second quarter and Jonathan Bender went right at him for an easy basket. The 7-5 Chinese rookie pulled down his first rebound with 8:45 left in the half and later had an assist to fellow first-rounder Bostjan Nachbar. Otherwise, Yao was a non-factor on offense, and he picked up three fouls on defense.
Jermaine O'Neal sneaks a jumper over 7-foot-5 Yao Ming.|
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images
"The guy has only been here 10 days," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said of Yao. "He is just getting acclimated. The intensity level now is above the preseason. It's hard to make the transition."
The Pacers opted to isolate O'Neal on Yao, and the All-Star used his quickness to exploit him. O'Neal drew a foul on one
possession and easily scored on another for a 36-31 lead with 4:41 left in the first half.
"We really felt that we would be ready for the beginning of the season but I have to say the difference was the character of these guys and how we stepped up as a team," O'Neal said. "He (Yao) has to learn how to adapt to the NBA. In international play, you can relax a little bit by loafing in the lane but in the NBA, you really have to play your man and play solid defense the whole time you're out there."
Yao did not score and grabbed a pair of rebounds in 11 minutes. It was a far cry from his performance on this same floor during this summer's World Championships, when he was named to the all-tournament team.
"I don't think the defensive speed was tough but getting back on offense was difficult," Yao conceded through an interpretor. "The reffing is something I can't control. I could have played better but there are some rules I have to get used to."
"He did not play particularly well today," Francis said. "We have 81 more to go. This is a learning tool for him as well as us. But we believe in him and know he will get better."
A basket by Francis gave Houston a 49-46 lead almost two minutes into the third quarter before Indiana took control. A three-pointer by Ron Artest tied it and triggered a 13-0 spurt that gave the Pacers their first double-digit lead. O'Neal had six points in the spurt, including a hook that made it 59-49 with 6:27 left.
Houston never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
O'Neal was an efficient 10-of-16 from the floor and led Indiana with 10 rebounds. He decisively outplayed Rockets' second-year forward Eddie Griffin, who made 1-of-11 shots for two points.
Artest fouled out with 20 points as Indiana placed four players in double figures. Erick Strickland netted 19 points in his debut with the Pacers. Both players also contributed on the defensive end by registering seven of Indiana's 13 steals.
"We really came out prepared tonight," Artest said. "I appreciate the team and coach having confidence in me."
"Every night it will be a different guy for us," Pacers coach Isiah Thomas said. "It won't be one superstar carrying the load. I thought everyone shared the basketball, moved the basketball and had good balance inside and out."
Strickland stepped in nicely for starter Jamaal Tinsley, who did not dress due to a right ankle sprain. The Pacers also were without the familiar presence of shooting guard Reggie Miller, who is on the injured list.
Francis made 13-of-28 shots and received plenty of help from backcourt mate Cuttino Mobley, who scored 22 points. But no other Rocket reached double figures as Kelvin Cato made 2-of-18 shots for nine points. Cato grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds for Houston, which shot 37 percent (30-of-81).
The Rockets' guard-oriented offense resulted in just nine assists.
"When our big guys come back, it's definitely going to help us out and we'll be that much better," Mobley said.
Pacers center Brad Miller left the game in the third quarter after suffering a cut on his chin. He received 14 stitches and did not return but Indiana indicated that he would be ready for Friday's game at New Jersey.
The other negative for Indiana was its horrendous free-throw shooting as it shot 56 percent (15-of-27). O'Neal, who shot a career-high 69 percent from the line last season, made just 4-of-9.