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O’Neal Keeps Hearing About Yao

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, after he’d put 39 points on the Houston Rockets, Shaquille O’Neal pulled a reporter close and said, “Now, I don’t want to hear any more questions about Yao Ming.”

As if that were that.

Nearly two years into it, the Rockets are 4-3 against the Lakers in the Yao era, and Yao is averaging 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds in the series. In the five games in which O’Neal was on the floor, the Rockets have won three, and Yao’s numbers have fallen only slightly.

In fact, the numbers say Yao is getting more comfortable against O’Neal. In his last two games against the Lakers, both with O’Neal sound, Yao averaged 31 points and made more than half of his shots.

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With the next meeting coming tonight, the Rockets are holding onto one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, and the Lakers, winners of nine in a row, have a chance to claim the conference’s top seeding.

Once seemingly content to simply gather their game for the playoffs, the Lakers now have a reason to win too. And while he has amused teammates amid Kobe Bryant’s scoring spree by playing the martyr and saying, “I’m a rebounder,” O’Neal would seem to have an offensive motive against Yao.

Since Yao arrived, O’Neal has averaged 28.8 points and 8.8 rebounds against the Rockets.

So, as happens a few times a year, O’Neal stood in a hallway at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo on Wednesday afternoon and got the questions he once banned.

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He sighed and hoped to look impatient.

“He’s a good player, but at 7-7, he’s just doing what he’s supposed to do,” O’Neal said. “So, it’s not that I’m going to say I’m not impressed, but at 7-7 you’re supposed to shoot over whoever’s sticking you. He’s a long, long drink of water. I probably won’t help out [on the defensive end] as much. I’ll probably lean on him a little more, get him tired. And hopefully in the fourth quarter I’ll have a little more than he will.”

Asked if he might get some help from Karl Malone, O’Neal appeared to have been poked in the neck by a cattle prod.

“No,” he said. “I’m just going to try to stay in front of him. If he scores, he scores. Hopefully, I can get the opportunity to go back at him. Whenever you’re playing somebody that’s a scorer, you have to make them work on both ends. So, if those guys are coming down shooting and not playing defense, then he’s probably going to have a big night.

“But I guarantee he won’t stick me one-on-one. I guarantee you that. They have to double- and triple- and do that. We play him straight up.... I think I can affect his shot most of the time.”

Four weeks ago in Houston, as Yao maneuvered his way to 33 points, Coach Phil Jackson asked O’Neal if he wanted defensive help. In the huddle, O’Neal turned it down.

“This time, we’ll make up our minds as we go when the double-team comes,” Jackson said.

For Jackson to even consider a double-team, particularly in the post, is flattery at its sincerest. And it probably would annoy O’Neal to no end.

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So, hoping to avoid that, Jackson probably would let O’Neal have at Yao in the early stages of the game, assuming O’Neal can keep Yao away from the basket.

Jackson asks that O’Neal “just keep him out of the lane, body him like he gets bodied in the lane, so [Yao] doesn’t have that access, standing in front of a guy. A guy that big steps in front of a player in the lane, he’s going to be effective, especially with the shooting touch Yao has.”

*

Derek Fisher donated $5,000 to the Linden Center School, which serves abused and emotionally troubled children. Fisher became aware of the school through his director of personal affairs, Duran McGregory, whose wife, Cynthia, is the school’s principal.... Some of the Lakers planned to attend Wednesday night’s premiere of “Johnson Family Vacation,” a movie that stars Cedric the Entertainer and Vanessa Williams, Rick Fox’s wife.

TONIGHT

vs. Houston, 7:30, TNT

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- KLAC (570), KWKW (1330).

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Records -- Lakers 51-23, Rockets 42-31.

Record vs. Rockets -- 1-2.

Update -- With eight games to play, the Rockets have all but clinched the seventh spot in the Western Conference, which means a first-round series against Minnesota, Sacramento or the Lakers.


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