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Yao Underwhelms Amid Expectations

Times Staff Writer

Slowly, steadily, perhaps somberly, the people who surround Houston Rocket center Yao Ming are starting to ask more of him.

His teammates wanted him to open up the offense by asserting himself down low in Game 2 against the Lakers. His coach wanted him to “figure things out” against Shaquille O’Neal, a difficult task for almost every other center at any given time.

Yao did as he was asked Monday, but only for one half.

He did little wrong in the first 24 minutes, walking off the court with a team-high 14 points and doing his part to get O’Neal in foul trouble.

Then came the second half of the Lakers’ 98-84 victory.

Yao was held without a basket after halftime until 4:31 remained in the fourth quarter. Up to that point, he had scored one point since halftime, a free throw with 9:12 left in the third quarter, and was otherwise absent on offense.

He forced O’Neal into a fourth foul early in the third quarter, but didn’t challenge him after that, attempting, and missing, his only three shots of the third quarter. He did not take a shot for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

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He padded his totals by scoring six points when the outcome had been decided, finishing with 21 points on eight-of-19 shooting. He sat down for good with 1:32 left, taking a towel and pressing it against his face before studying the floor in front of him for several seconds.

“In the second half, you could tell our attention slipped and we weren’t focused at the end like we were the last time,” Yao said.

In the Rockets’ two regular-season victories over the Lakers, Yao averaged 23.5 points. He also had 33 points in a 96-93 loss March 3.

But in the first two games of the playoffs, he has made 12 of 30 shots and is averaging 15.5 points.

Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy paused for several seconds after being asked his opinion of Yao’s play.

“Twelve of 30,” he said slowly. “It’s going to be tough for us ... " Van Gundy was expecting big things of Yao, even before tipoff.

“This is a great chance for Yao to try to figure things out,” he said. “He’s going against the most dominant force to play in the NBA physically in the last ‘X’ amount of years. We’re going to give him some help, and he’s going to have to figure it out.”

Swingman Jim Jackson took a more direct approach, outlining the importance of Yao’s inside presence to open up shots for the outside guys.

“Yao has to be more dominant inside,” Jackson said.

Defensively, Yao held O’Neal to seven points on three-of-nine shooting, but that just as easily could have been a product of O’Neal’s early fouls. O’Neal finished with four fouls, making Van Gundy, for one, unhappy.

“If you think O’Neal’s fouling out, you haven’t been watching the NBA very long,” Van Gundy said. “One, he’s a smart player. Two, he’s not fouling out. Yao may foul out, but O’Neal won’t foul out. You learn these things after a while.”

Yao’s words were strong after the Lakers’ Game 1 victory, when he vowed O’Neal would be denied easy access in clutch situations, such as his dunk of Kobe Bryant’s airball with 17.4 seconds left Saturday.

There were no late-game heroics Monday by O’Neal. No need. The game was tucked away long before then.


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