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Tuesday February 26, 2008 7:23 PM


Rockets' All-Star center will miss remainder of season


Yao has stress fracture in his left foot

 


Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- The Rockets will have to maintain their postseason push without their All-Star center.

Yao Ming will miss the remainder of the season and a potential playoff run with a stress fracture in his left foot, Houston general manager Daryl Morey revealed on Tuesday.

The Rockets' six-time All-Star is expected to be sidelined about four months with rehabilitation to follow.

"It's obviously a difficult day for our organization and our fans," Morey said. "We've been playing exceptional ball. Yao's been a huge part of that."

The injury is a stunning setback for a team that had climbed back into contention in the Western Conference playoff race.

Before Tuesday's game against the Washington Wizards, the Rockets (36-20) had won an NBA-best 12 straight games and had pulled within three games of the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers. Houston had a league-best 22-4 record since Jan. 1.

Now, the Rockets must make their push without arguably the game's best big man. Yao informed his teammates about the disappointing news before Tuesday's shootaround at Toyota Center.

"I felt so horrible walking in this building knowing I need to tell my teammates the situation," Yao said. "When coach tells everybody I am out for the season, everybody is like quiet. That kind of quietness makes me feel kind of scared. It was quiet like nobody was there and you just feel alone. But I trust my teammates will move forward. They played well the last month because everybody played well."

Rockets team physician Tom Clanton said Yao has two possible treatments for the stress fracture in the tarsal navicular bone of his left foot.

The center could undergo surgery, which would involve placing screws across the bone between his ankle and foot to strengthen the connection. The recovery time from surgery is expected to be four months. Yao's other option is treat the foot with a cast and crutches, an approach that would take between three to four months.

"It is not an injury we feel he can play with," Clanton said. "I've made the recommendation that it be treated surgically and we are working with him to get other opinions just to be certain that that is indeed what should be done."

Yao is seeking a second opinion before determining his treatment. He'd like to choose the option that gets him back on the court sooner rather than later, but won't risk his career for a quick fix.

"I'm looking for fast," Yao said. "Whatever way makes me come back quicker and, of course, what I won't have to worry about the rest of my career."

Clanton couldn't forecast when the center would play again. But the physician was optimistic that Yao would be able to play for the Chinese national team in the 2008 Olympic Games.

The Rockets center acknowledged that missing the Olympics is one of his biggest fears. The 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing this summer and the Chinese are hoping that Yao can put the nation in medal contention. The Olympics begin on Aug. 8.

"If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, that would be the biggest loss in my career to right now," Yao said.

Despite not missing any playing time, the Rockets center had been experiencing persistent pain around his left ankle since the NBA's All-Star break.

Yao had been undergoing treatment for the injury, but the swelling and tenderness in his foot didn't subside. He underwent an MRI and CT Scans on his left foot following Monday's practice at Memorial-Hermann Hospital.

Clanton said there was no specific moment or game when the injury occurred. But he was optimistic that further damage had been averted. The cracks within the bone had not developed into a complete fracture before the diagnosis.

"This is something that can be treated," Clanton said. "We're catching this at an early stage. The average time to make a diagnosis is four months. We're catching it very early in the process. We're catching this within two weeks of the onset of symptoms."

Yao was having one of the best seasons of his career before the injury, averaging 22.0 points and 10.8 rebounds.

With his latest setback, Yao will miss significant time because of injury for the fourth time in the past three seasons. He missed 32 games last season with a fractured right tibia and 21 games during the 2005-06 season with a toe infection that required surgery. He also missed four games at the end of that season with a broken foot.

The center said he was concerned about his injury history, but noted that he can only move forward.

"I do the best I can do training myself and getting stronger," Yao said. "But some of these injuries, I don't know why they would happen. Maybe I'm just an unlucky guy."

The Rockets will likely lean on veteran center Dikembe Mutombo as well as forwards Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry to provide more minutes.

Mutombo, who has played 14 games this season, was slated to start Tuesday's game against Washington.

"When we play teams with a big 7-footer in there, we need to play Dikembe," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "We'll have to wait and see. He knows his strengths and what he can do for us. Hopefully, we'll keep working him and we'll see what he can give us."

"It's really tough, obviously. I really feel bad for Yao. It's just a shocker. (On Monday), he was OK. Four hours later, he wasn't. It's tough on everybody."

The Rockets were stunned by the news, but are optimistic that they can continue to win without the star center.

"He's probably the biggest part of our team -- and not just his 7-foot-6 size," Rockets point guard Rafer Alston said. "But we're going to miss him. We know how much he means to this team. We didn't have any idea it was coming. He didn't know because he had been playing through it for a few games. But the season goes on. Teams are going to try to line us up to beat us and we got to be prepared for that."

The Rockets managed to survive without him last season, rolling to a 20-12 record without the big man.

Houston will try to do it again.

"We feel very confident about our playoff push," Morey said. "We've managed to step up and play well without Yao in the past. The coaching staff and players are confident that we'll continue to play well and make the playoffs this year."