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Houston’s Yao commanding attention

From the Associated Press

Yao Ming always is looking ahead.

The Houston Rockets center is off to the best start of his career, averaging 26.1 points and 9.6 rebounds a game heading into this weekend. He is shooting 52% from the field, 86% from the free-throw line and has blocked 44 shots in the Rockets’ first 22 games.

All-Star teammate Tracy McGrady has said repeatedly that Yao is now the best center in basketball, and coaches and players who have faced the Rockets this season agree.

Last Saturday, after Yao scored a season-high 38 points and blocked six shots in Washington, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said Yao “has an arsenal that I haven’t seen before” -- and Jordan played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the early 1980s.

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Yao scored 38 again Thursday night and grabbed a season-high 18 rebounds in the Rockets’ 109-107 loss at Golden State.

“He is probably the best big man in the game right now,” said Warriors center Adonal Foyle. “He has the total package. He scored 38 and hardly broke a sweat.”

But Yao, in his fifth NBA season and only 26, shrugs off the accolades he’s beginning to hear routinely. When he watches film of himself, he always sees plenty he could do better.

“The last month, I’ve played well. I’m playing very confidently,” he said. “But I’m worried about today and tomorrow, not yesterday.”

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Yao scored 26 points, but only five in the second half, of Tuesday’s 102-94 loss to Los Angeles. The Lakers aggressively double-teamed Yao and slapped at the ball every time he tried to dribble -- two things Yao will have to learn to overcome.

“He’s commanding a lot more attention, and it’s coming quicker,” said Houston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who has traveled to China the past two summers to work individually with Yao. “Before, I think teams would wait to see how he was doing before they would commit a second defender. Now, it’s coming quicker and he has to make that adjustment.”

But more often than not this season, Yao has looked virtually unstoppable, showing a deft touch from almost anywhere within 12 feet of the basket.

Former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, now a scout for the Lakers, said Yao is starting to do things that Hakeem Olajuwon did when he led Houston to two NBA championships in the 1990s.

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Last week, Tomjanovich scribbled notes as Yao made 12 of 17 shots and scored 27 points at home against Golden State. Four different Warriors tried to guard him at some point, but Yao easily dropped in hook shots and baseline jump shots and quickly pivoted for layups and dunks.

“The guy looks like he feels comfortable just about anywhere on the floor,” Tomjanovich said. “He scores on both sides of the hoop. He’s also developed a great economy of movement and motion. I don’t think he has to work as hard as he had to before to get certain shots off.”

Tomjanovich said Yao is starting to show some of Olajuwon’s moves, though he added that comparisons to “the Dream” are premature.

“There’s only one ‘Dream.’ There will never be anybody like him,” Tomjanovich said. “But there are similarities. They both have great shooting touches. They both have great hands. They won’t overpower you, but they can find ways to hurt you on both sides of the hoop.”

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Since the Rockets took him with the top pick of the 2002 draft, Yao more often has been compared with Shaquille O’Neal. While the game seemed to signal a changing of the guard, Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy said Yao had been building toward performances like that for a while.

“The game against Miami was a ‘wow’ moment for people who don’t watch him every day,” Van Gundy said. “For the people who watch him every day, we see the preparation he puts in. He’s played incrementally better his entire career, but it’s not big jumps, it’s been small steps. And that’s what guys who work so hard at their profession can expect -- consistent, slow improvement.”


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