• Print

Look Beyond the Hype

by: Trevor Mitchell, rockets.com






When Rockets rookie center Yao Ming tips off against the Lakers' Shaquille O’Neal Tuesday night in L.A., the world will once again be watching.

The first matchup between the two giants lived up to the worldwide hype and proved to be the highlight of the first half of the NBA season. O’Neal got the best of Yao all night, but Yao scored the first and last points for the Rockets and came away with the all-important victory. While some things may be the same on Tuesday night, many things will be different. For starters, the swarm of media covering the event will have to find a new storyline besides the bad blood drama behind the two centers. Shaq and Yao seem to have made amends over the insensitive comments made by O’Neal early in the season.

Yao, who is as polite as they come, invited O’Neal to his home in Houston when the two teams squared off in January. The Lakers center received word of the invite too late though and was already spending time with his family in Houston. The two centers got a chance to speak most recently at the NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta. Yao represented the Rockets as the starting center for the West, while O’Neal came off the bench. For a few minutes, the two All-Star teammates were even on the floor at the same time with O’Neal at power forward. Also, Shaq reportedly met and apoligized to Yao's parents over the weekend, and even kissed the rookie’s mother on the cheek.

"I didn't know how good Yao was when he first came into the league," O'Neal said.

The overall play of the two big men may also be different in their second meeting. Yao enters this contest with the experience of playing against O’Neal once, and also having endured another month of battles on the NBA hardwood. Shaq comes into this game playing well, and in far better shape than he was in the January 17 contest. Combining a healthy Shaq with a blazing hot Kobe Bryant may not be exactly what Houston needs to see as it continues to find much-needed consistency.

At this point in his career, Shaq is a much more dominant player than Yao. The Rockets rookie still has many things to learn about the NBA game and America in general. The simple fact that Yao is mentioned in the same breath with O’Neal is a compliment to his rapid development since arriving in Houston in October. While Yao is new and hot, Shaq is arguably the most dominant big man to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. In a few years, Yao may be the best center in the league, but for now he is just the friendliest big man to average over 13 points. However the rookie's progress is way ahead of schedule and the Rockets will be content if he just doesn’t allow O’Neal to have his way in the paint.

While the big story will be Shaq battling Yao, this meeting between the Lakers and Rockets will be more substance than show. The Rockets have come away victorious in each of their first two meetings with the NBA champs (O’Neal missed the first game due to injury), but this third meeting will mean the most. While it will be almost impossible to repeat the overtime drama of the previous matchup in this game, both teams simply need to get a win. The Lakers and Rockets are battling for the last playoff spot in the West, and the winner of Tuesday’s game can pull slightly away from the other. This contest will be crucial to the playoff aspirations of both teams.

Yao will hopefully be more of a factor than he was in the previous matchup with O’Neal. The 7-6 center blocked Shaq’s first three shots, scored six quick points, and fell off after that. Houston will make a group effort to get Yao more involved throughout this contest with Los Angeles. The Rockets need Yao to develop a presence in the post and not let O’Neal dominate. No one in the NBA can stop Shaq, but there is no one in the league who is 7-6 that possesses the type of skills that Yao does.

In Yao’s first game at Staples Center, he torched the Lakers' Samaki Walker for 20 points and made all nine of his shot attempts. With O’Neal manning the middle for the Lakers this time, things will not come as easy for China’s favorite son. Playing on Shaq’s home court, Yao cannot afford to play timid. The Lakers are soaring, and it will be up to Yao and star guard Steve Francis to keep them grounded. Expect to see a very good game and a playoff-type atmosphere Tuesday night when the Rockets and Lakers square off, with two of the NBA’s top centers leading the way for their respective teams.