Yao Ming's Absence Felt as Orlando Magic Whip Houston Rockets

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IJanuary 23, 2011

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 17:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic smiles on the baseline as he waits for Shaquille O'Neal of the Boston Celtics to shoot a free throw on January 17, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The question comes up often. Friends and acquaintances never seem satisfied with my answer.

Why, after five straight seasons with five major injuries, do the Houston Rockets continue to employ Yao Ming? They opine, as many Houstonians do, that Owner Leslie Alexander should have parted ways with the snake-bit, 7'6" center long ago.

Yao, who played in just five games before another stress fracture ended his season, will collect $17 million in the 2010-2011 campaign, though insurance money will spare Alexander the brunt of the bill.

I wrote just after his latest injury announcement that he should retire for his sake and the Rockets'.

A night like Saturday, though, makes it easier to understand why GM Daryl Morey and Rick Adelman have not been eager to say "adios" to the Chinese icon.

The Orlando Magic rolled into town a night after throttling the Toronto Raptors and delivered another effortless 118-104 horsewhipping.

The Rockets sickly performance was enough to make everyone in the sellout crowd fill the Toyota Center aisles and seats with vomit.


The Rockets chucked up 95 shots and made just 37, but the defense was the deficiency that made the craptastic effort worthy of a collective upchuck.

Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, JJ Redick, Brandon Bass, and every other shooter in a blue uniform, feasted on an all-they-could-eat buffet of open looks. Dwight Howard was super, too, with 22 points and 14 points.

Shane Battier's lone make, a three-pointer, afforded Houston an early 3-0 lead. The highlights ended there.

The Magic made garbage time official in the fourth quarter by sitting the starters, but the Rockets will want to throw all of Saturday's 48-minute drubbing in the trash.

They will not beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night without a sharp attitude adjustment and a re-dedication to competing at the NBA level.

The Magic, though, rank as one of the Rockets ultimate nightmare matchups. Even at their best, Orlando figured to breeze in crunch time. My, my how the tables turn.

Why keep Yao around? He once owned matchups against Dwight Howard and boasts a 7-2 career edge in wins versus the Magic's physical freak.

Adelman and Morey surely remember when the Rockets extinguished, vanquished and exposed Orlando's trey-bombing act twice a year.

The last time Houston faced Orlando with a healthy Yao, the Magic scored 83 points, lost by 10 and shot in the 30s for most of that miserable night.

Howard managed just one basket against his towering Chinese counterpart. That is not a misprint or an exaggeration.

Howard has improved so much on the offensive end that Yao's presence might no longer make the difference. Still, has any matchup about face been as abrasive as this one?

Yao's bulk frustrated Howard and allowed the perimeter defenders to stay home on Orlando's prolific long-distance shooters.

No one in a Houston uniform was home on the defense end Saturday night. Orlando took full advantage, broke in and stole everything, including a few jock straps and perhaps Houston's chances of a .500 record by the All-Star break.

The Rockets have dropped four straight contests to the Magic, and none of them were close in the second half. I will spare Rockets fans a reprint of those final scores. They do not need another reason to spew.

There were plenty of those Saturday. Bleh.

Stan Van Gundy, dubbed the "Master of Panic" by Shaquille O'Neal, might as well have led a yoga class the way his team calmly thrashed its overmatched opponent.

After a tight first five minutes, the Magic were not bothered again, even when a late run threatened to close the gap to 10. Some molestation, any molestation, would have been a welcome sight.

The Rockets needed good fortune and the stretch of unconscious perimeter shooting that would never come. The Magic made their own luck.

Yes, they hit 13 triples, but most of those were uncontested and in rhythm. An Orlando three-point barrage is comparable to an early-1990s Whitney Houston winning a singing competition.

The Rockets, once again, needed to outduel a foe at its forte. The Magic were having none of that. Unlike Friday's gut-wrenching loss in Memphis, the outcome was never in doubt.

Even when the Rockets led 12-7, they looked like defenseless, homeless men stranded on an island, waiting for the hurricane to come. Oh, it did.

Saturday's ass-kicking made the blown leads against Utah, Portland, Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans sting that much more.

The Rockets inability to close out those affairs robbed them of five victories that would make the brutal stretch ahead easier to stomach.

Houston now sits five games below .500 with road tilts looming at San Antonio, Dallas, L.A. (to play the Lakers, not the Clippers) and Utah.

Worse, those contests are clustered as back-to-backs. Before then, the Rockets must dispatch the Timberwolves and the Clippers. Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, a pair of interior monsters, will make wins tougher to snatch than usual.

Love's rebound average, 15, recalls Dennis Rodman, and Griffin is a SportsCenter highlight looking for a place to happen.

The Clippers defeated the Rockets at Toyota Center last season without Griffin. The one solace for Houston: no team has blown more fourth-quarter leads than Minnesota. The Rockets better hope they do not triumph in that dubious duel.

Adelman likely moved on without Yao the moment the oft-injured center sprained his left ankle in Washington.

Great coaches use the available players instead of moaning about the missing pieces on the sidelines. He would have welcomed back the burden of Yao's minutes restriction but could not have expected his tallest employee to return.

Even if a witch doctor erased Adelman's short-term memory, a simple Internet search would have reminded him that Yao's injury history takes the word "frail" to a new level.

So, why did the front office and coaching staff praise his rehabilitation efforts and trumpet his comeback as a beacon of hope? Why exercise faith and patience when one more spill or tumble would crush the team and its fans again?

Saturday's final score provides the gruesome answer.

It was not uncommon in Yao-Howard matchups for the former to score 20-plus points while the latter was held hostage in single-digit purgatory.

The Rockets blanketed Howard in the latest tussle with 6'6" Chuck Hayes and Jordan Hill. After a few early misses, Howard laughed his way to those 22 points.

The Houston defense, after all, was a joke.

When the Magic's shooting accuracy dipped to 58 percent, a nearby fan exclaimed, "They're below 60!" On a vomit-inducing night, that was cause for celebration.

Elite big men are difficult to unearth. All of the squads in the championship hunt have one, or three, with Miami ranking as the lone possible exception.

It makes sense, then, that the Rockets did everything possible to hang onto theirs, even as endless heartbreak and a cursed frame destroyed Yao's career.

Yao sold tickets and the NBA to China. He was also superb against the league's obvious No. 1 center. While Rockets fans fight nausea after a beatdown worse than the score might indicate, Howard can wear a smile borne from an evening of Houston punchlines.

Yao is gone, and it remains doubtful he will ever suit up again. Morey must find another form of kryptonite for Superman.

Saturday night, the Rockets became the Magic's play toys, and a once grounded star put on his cape and flew past his former tormentors for a fourth straight time. How many Houstonians now suffer from motion sickness?


The reasons to hope Yao would recuperate became clearer each time the Magic's center breezed to the basket or a teammate drilled a jumpshot. Hakeem Olajuwon watched Orlando wallop his former team from a courtside seat. 

I have to think he left, as the other fans did, wanting a throw-up bucket and a refund.