And the first round goes to the rookie with a rocket on his jersey.
It wasn’t exactly Chamberlain vs. Abdul-Jabbar, but the long-awaited showdown between the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Houston rookie Yao Ming lived up to the hype Friday night at Compaq Center.
At times, O’Neal was as dominating as ever; he finished with a team-high 31 points and a game-high 13 rebounds in 47 minutes. But the big story was Yao, who was impressive in the Rockets’ 108-104 overtime victory.
At 7 feet 5, 296 pounds, Yao proved that he’s far from a weakling. He played tough and with skill in an impressive debut against O’Neal. Yao, who injured his left index finger blocking a shot by O’Neal, finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots.
First half: The basketball world wanted to see how Yao handled himself the first time O’Neal tried to overpower him under the basket. They found out early Friday. Not only did Yao stand up to O’Neal, he blocked the Laker center’s first three shots by standing his ground and using incredible timing.
On the offensive end, Yao had his game flowing as he knocked down a soft mini-hook and mid-range jump shot in O’Neal’s face to start the game. Six minutes into the game, Yao definitely had an edge with six points to O’Neal’s zero. But that did not last too long.
Although Yao showed plenty of heart against O’Neal, he paid a price, getting roughed up while trying to block one of O’Neal’s dunks. Because O’Neal was able to establish deep position in the post, Yao did not have great leverage and suffered a finger injury as a result.
O’Neal prides himself on his power moves and loves to wear down opponents. A muscle-dunk here, a turnaround bank shot there and by the time the first quarter ended, O’Neal and the Lakers were in control.
But for some reason, the Lakers decided to go away from O’Neal when he returned to the game for the last half of the second quarter. Neither O’Neal or Yao did much heading into halftime. O’Neal had 11 first-half points, four rebounds and three assists to help the Lakers to a 47-46 lead. Yao had six points, three blocked shots and zero rebounds.
Third quarter: Yao, who had an unusually high eight field-goal attempts in the first half, continued to struggle to gain firm position on offense in the third quarter and it hurt the Rockets. Yao wasn’t able to move O’Neal outside and when he did, the Laker center moved his feet well enough to disrupt Houston’s half-court offense.
But it was a different story on the offensive end for the Lakers. Yao consistently beat O’Neal to his favorite spot on the floor. He was able to take the ball out of O’Neal’s hands by forcing him outside the paint. When O’Neal bruised into the paint for a fadeaway, Yao was ready and blocked it. The next time O’Neal got the ball, he was called for an offensive foul for banging into Yao.
Yao may not have been scoring but he did little things to help the Rockets surge into the lead after three quarters. Yao stepped up with five rebounds in the third, while limiting O’Neal to two points and two rebounds as the Rockets took a 71-69 lead.
Fourth quarter: After O’Neal got rolling and scored a couple of baskets over backup center Kelvin Cato, Yao returned with nearly eight minutes remaining and the score tied, 77-77.
O’Neal hit a difficult turnaround shot from the baseline over Yao to give the Lakers a two-point lead at 6:35. After forcing a Yao miss, O’Neal displayed some great footwork with an up-and-under layup two minutes later.
O’Neal became a rebounding force, grabbing an offensive rebound that led to a Derek Fisher basket, a defensive rebound that led to a Kobe Bryant basket and another offensive rebound in the final minute.
But Yao set a huge screen that opened Steve Francis for a tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime.
Overtime: O’Neal delivered two statement dunks sandwiched around a tough reverse bank shot to keep the Lakers close.
But with 10.2 seconds left, Yao got the dunk that counted most in the Rockets’ win.
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The big picture: Russell’s teams won 86 of the 143 games (60%) against Chamberlain’s teams. Russell played on 11 NBA championship teams, Chamberlain two. Chamberlain outscored Russell, 28.5 to 14.4 (per-game average), in their matchups.
A look at the first matchups of some of the NBA’s best centers:
WILT CHAMBERLAIN vs. BILL RUSSELL
*--* Nov. 7, 1959 at Boston Boston 115, Philadelphia Warriors 106 Chamberlain, Philadelphia 30 points 31.6% FG 28 reb Russell, Boston 22 points 36.8% FG 35 reb
*--* The big picture: Abdul-Jabbar’s and Chamberlain’s teams split 28 games. Abdul-Jabbar outscored Chamberlain, 30.9 to 16.1 (per-game average) KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR vs. WILT CHAMBERLAIN Oct. 24, 1969 at Los Angeles Lakers 123, Milwaukee 112 Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee 23 points 42.9% FG 20 reb Chamberlain, Lakers 25 points 64.3% FG 25 reb
*--* KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR vs. BILL WALTON Jan. 19, 1975 at Milwaukee Milwaukee 122, Portland 108 Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee 50 points 60% FG 15 reb Walton, Portland 7 points 40% FG 6 reb The big picture: Abdul-Jabbar’s teams won 19 of 35 games against Walton’s teams. Abdul-Jabbar outscored Walton, 24.8 to 13.7 (per-game average)
*--* PATRICK EWING vs. HAKEEM OLAJUWON Jan. 18, 1986 at Houston Houston 104, New York 95 Ewing, New York 25 points 50% FG 8 reb Olajuwon, Houston 24 points 55.6% FG 6 reb The big picture: Olajuwon’s teams won 18 of 35 games against Ewing’s teams. Olajuwon outscored Ewing, 21.9 to 19.3 (per-game average)
*--* HAKEEM OLAJUWON vs. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL Nov. 24, 1992 at Orlando, Fla Orlando 107, Houston 94 Olajuwon, Houston 22 points 40.9% FG 13 reb O’Neal, Orlando 12 points 50% FG 13 reb The big picture: O’Neal’s teams won 17 of 28 games against Olajuwon’s teams. O’Neal outscored Olajuwon, 24.0 to 19.7