Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Despite Yao's injury, Rockets' season far from lost

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

YAO Ming kept pausing to gather his emotions, as if he didn't want us to know how much he was hurting or how much he cared. The thing is, we knew.

"It's very disappointing," he kept saying.

Sometimes a city is lucky enough to have a professional athlete who's a role model in every sense of the word.

That's what Yao Ming has been during these six seasons with the Rockets.

It's hard to imagine anyone in sports caring more, working harder or being more admired by his teammates and coaches. Yao also was smart and funny, a people person in every sense of the word.

Those things are among the many reasons Tuesday was so difficult for everyone who cares about the Rockets. Yao's season-ending injury isn't just about basketball.

The Rockets will be competitive and interesting because general manager Daryl Morey has done a tremendous job of building a solid roster around the two superstars.

That 94-69 victory over Washington was built on heart and pride and professionalism, and those are things that can carry a franchise through the low times.

"It gets back to the same thing — the respect you have for each other," coach Rick Adelman said. "This team has really been building. Losing Yao is shocking, but we can continue to win. We're not stepping away."

Take two steps back and look at the Rockets without Yao. Luis Scola and Carl Landry have emerged as impact players and will split time at power forward and center.

Shane Battier is playing the best basketball of his career. Rafer Alston and Bobby Jackson are a nice tandem at point guard.

And there's Dikembe Mutombo, 41. After riding the bench much of the season, he stepped back into the starting lineup and set a tone from the beginning with his shot-blocking and rebounding.

"Just watch how he affected the game on the defensive end," Adelman said.

In the end, the Rockets will go only as far as Tracy McGrady takes them, but anyone that thinks this season is over is dead wrong.

"This team has responded all year long and hopefully, will do it again," Adelman said. "We have enough people to go out and win games. Our challenge is still the same."

Nothing could've been done

Tuesday was about something else. When Adelman informed his players of Yao's injury, there was stunned silence.

That silence had nothing to do with the Rockets suddenly being less capable of beating San Antonio or Phoenix. It was because the other players know how much all of this means to Yao.

There are those morning runs and the weightlifting sessions and the jump-rope drills and then those endless sessions with Carroll Dawson to refine a hook shot and protect the ball and all the rest.

One of the first things Yao asked Dr. Tom Clanton was if there was something he could have done to prevent the injury that ended his season.

"No," he was told.

After all the heartbreak the past few years, the Rockets just knew they were going to write a different ending this time. They'd been expertly assembled and smartly coached.

They're smart and unselfish and capable of playing with any NBA team.

That's what makes Yao's injury so incomprehensibly disappointing. It's not just the crushing disappointment of losing him for the remainder of this season.

It's more questions about his durability. He has missed an average of 29 games the past three seasons.

Now just when acquiring Jackson seemed to be a perfect addition, just when people around the country were beginning to believe in the Rockets, they'll be forced to play the remainder of this season without Yao's 22 points and 11 rebounds.

He did more than those numbers indicate. He anchored the defense. Every player knew they had help behind them. He also set a tone with the way he practiced and how hard he worked. He's what we'd like every professional athlete to be.

When Yao was injured last season, coach Jeff Van Gundy pulled McGrady aside and said: "This will be your finest hour."

In T-Mac's capable hands

The Rockets went 20-12 without Yao, and it indeed was McGrady's finest hour. Now they're forced to try again.

"We're more equipped, more prepared this time," Alston said.

As for Yao, he admitted that he was discouraged by missing significant time for a third straight season.

"Maybe I'm an unlucky guy," he said.

He also said he believed the Rockets would do fine without him and that he would dedicate himself to being prepared for the Olympics and next season.

Not that anyone expected otherwise.

No comments: