I'm Not Fronting: Rockets' Postseason Success Depends on Yao

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 25, 2009

HOUSTON - APRIL 24:  Center Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets dribbles the ball against Joel Przybilla #10 of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2009 in Houston, Texas. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets second-half execution against Portland in game three was dreadful.

Yao Ming scored a mere seven points on the night on 2-of-7 shooting. Ron Artest attempted zero shots in the first half and missed his first four of the second.

Aaron Brooks finished 3-of-11 from the field. The bench made seven of nine shots in the first half but just 2-of-7 in the second.

The Rockets bricked 10 of 14 shots in the final period.

And they still beat the Trail Blazers 86-83 to take a 2-1 series lead.

Shane Battier scored 16 points, including a monstrous three-pointer with 4:33 to play to electrify the crowd and stave off a furious Blazers rally.

Luis Scola added a clutch 17-foot shot with 1:02 remaining to his growing postseason body of work. He led Houston with 19 points, and also grabbed nine rebounds.

When the Rockets’ lead swelled to 17 early in the third quarter, a Blazers comeback seemed inevitable.

No team has come back from more double-digit deficits in the last six years more than Portland. Few teams are better at folding offensively in the second half than Houston.

The second half came down to defense. The Rockets needed plenty of it—and an 11-of-14 fourth-quarter performance from the free-throw line—to survive the Blazers' onslaught.

Both teams seemed determined not to let the opposing stars beat them. Artest and Battier harangued Brandon Roy into a miserable 6-of-18 performance, a far cry from his 42 point outburst Tuesday. Scola, Carl Landry and others harassed LaMarcus Aldridge into a 6-of-15 night.

Indeed, the scariest Blazer was Rudy Fernandez, who drained five three pointers and totaled 17 points.

Portland adjusted to Yao after he torched them for 24 points on 9-of-9 shooting in game one.

Rockets head coach Rick Adelman said after the game that he didn’t care who took shots as long as they went through the net. 

Nate McMillan was more concerned about his team's blown second-half charge than Roy or Aldridge's involvement in the offense.

Do the coaches mean what they say? Can Portland survive with Steve Blake and Fernandez as its heavy hitters? Can the Rockets win two more with Battier and Scola as primary offensive weapons?

We’ll know the answer after a pivotal game four. Here's an educated guess: Yao will be a big part of that answer.

I may not be fronting, but the Blazers are. They’re fronting Yao and forcing other Rockets to beat them.

When Houston doesn't respond to the attention paid to Yao, the offense implodes and the letter "L" usually accompanies the final score.

Yao blocked three shots and pulled down 13 enormous rebounds.

He can be useful even when an opponent’s plan is to take him away. If the Rockets are going to do what they haven’t done since Bill Clinton's second term—win a playoff series—they need a useful Yao.

Are Yao, Battier losers?

The Blazers have already overachieved. They won 54 games and nearly stole the Northwest Division from the Denver Nuggets. They don’t need to win this series to validate their season.

If they lose in five or six games, no one with a right mind will call for General Manager Kevin Pritchard to trade Roy and Aldridge or gut the roster.

If the Rockets fail to win a playoff series in their sixth appearance since 1997, how can you not consider blowing up the team's foundation?

For all the accolades Yao has received and praised heaped on him by coaches and teammates, his resume boasts zero playoff series wins.

Battier gets flattering articles written about him in The New York Times Magazine. They call him the "No-Stats All-Star”—one of the game's best, smartest man-to-man defenders.

Still, zero playoff series wins.

There are no excuses in the NBA record books: History judges players on how much they win.

If Yao loses the fourth playoff series of his career, history may someday view him as one of the greatest losers ever in pro sports.

Nice guy? Check. Work ethic? Check. Respect of those who know him? Check.

Like everyone else, he’ll be judged on whether he wins when it counts.

Houston apologists will always accept excuses. Aaron Brooks was too small, too inexperienced. Landry and Von Wafer need to mature.

They'll win in a few years, right?

Wrong.

Yao is 28. Battier is 30. The Rockets need to win now.

Not winning a playoff round since 1997 might pass if the Rockets had not spend all of those years promising fans that the team was close to the promised land.

Owner Les Alexander should have hired better liars.

First, it was Steve “Stevie Franchise” Francis, the mercurial guard whom management felt could become a big-time playoff performer. He possessed stunning athleticism, passing prowess and the confidence necessary to win.

Too arrogant and unitelligible to harness his talents, his Houston career turned out to be one big flop. Cuttino Mobley was supposed to be a terrific sidekick to Francis. He didn't win, either.

In 2004, the Rockets launched an even more disastrous era around another alleged superstar. Do I need to mention his name?

He promised a championship during a press conference upon his arrival.

"Believe me, something special is gonna happen here in the city of Houston," he said.

Special, indeed. Like, losing by 40 points in a 2005 Game Seven at Dallas, after grabbing a 2-0 series lead on the road.

Or losing a Game Seven at home to Utah in 2007, after taking another 2-0 lead.

The Rockets did win 22 consecutive games last year, 12 of them without Yao, but the first-round flop is what most people remember.

Not winning a playoff round since 1997 might fly if this team was expected to be a moribund bottom-feeder like Minnesota or Memphis.

Instead, General Manager Daryl Morey built a roster he believed could compete for a title. Since that seems out of the question just winning four games in this series would be enough.

Yao is the center in so many ways. Since 2002, management has done everything possible to build a competitive roster around him.

Now it's time for the big guy to return the favor.

Houston fans do not want a 50-win season. They do not want a few 20-point wins over playoff-bound clubs in March. They do not care if a certain someone scores 13 points in 35 seconds in December.

They want the Rockets to win in the playoffs.

The Blazers will continue fronting Yao and forcing other guys to beat them. Eventually, the role players will falter, and the Rockets will need their center to rise above the fronting defense and produce.

If the Rockets win game four, they’ll head back to Portland with a chance to deliver a knockout punch.

Then, we'll see if Yao owns any boxing gloves.

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