Sunday, January 27, 2008

Top 5 Reasons Yao Gets No Asterisk by His ASG Start this Season

It's no secret and no surprise that Yao has earned his 6th straight starting nod to the NBA All-Star Game, but even I didn't know he had topped the Dream in consecutive starts (8 starts, 12 total ASG appearances). Yao was the third-leading vote-getter in the West with 1,709,180 behind Kobe (2,004,940) and Melo (1,723,701). KG netted the most votes with 2,399,148. It's safe to say Boston loves their new BPFF.

But gone are the days when you had to defend Yao's selection. He was far above any other center in the West... after generously moving Duncan back to the forward position. You can see just how he stacks up to the West's other leading contenders:

Yao Ming (HOU: 24-19, 9th in West)
37.2 mpg | 22.1 ppg | .501 FG% | .853 FT% | 10.7 rpg | 2.4 apg | 2.3 bpg

Amare Stoudamire (PHO: 31-13, 2nd)
32.0 mpg | 22.7 ppg | .590 FG% | .768 FT% | 9.1 rpg | 1.2 apg | 2.2 bpg

Marcus Camby (DEN: 26-16, 4th)
35.2 mpg | 9.4 ppg | .450 FG% | .681 FT% | 14.4 rpg | 3.0 apg | 3.9 bpg

Pau Gasol (MEM: 13-31, 12th)
37.0 mpg | 19.1 ppg | .501 FG% | .818 FT% | 8.9 rpg | 3.0 apg | 1.4 bpg

The most interesting part of this stat comparison, Yao leads in minutes. Yao has steadily, slowly to some, but finally reached a level of consistency in high-impact numbers over the load of increased minutes. And he's never played with more energy and fire. Which leads me to the first of a series of Yao Top 5's leading up the All-Star Game:

Top 5 Reasons Yao Gets No Asterisk by His ASG Start This Season

1.) More posters: Yao has posterized more unwitting opponents with emphatic dunks and blocks in the first half of this season than in his entire career. The fear is starting to set in. Yao's no longer bringing just the Charmin around the rim, now he's bringing the pain. Just keep dunking the ball. Keep dunking the ball. Like mantra. He had a little relapse in the Portland game, but he remembered. Keep dunking the ball.

2.) Better defense: It's still not perfect, he's still not quite an elite shot-blocker but teams are starting to learn this year not to get silly around the rim with Yao in the paint. Refs are coming around slowly, but around nonetheless, by not bailing out players who just want to slam their bodies into Yao. 2.3 bpg is good for 7th in the league; 6th really if you discount Theo Ratliff whose only played 6 games.

3.) 4th quarter free throws: There's no other center in the league I'd rather have at the free throw line to ice a game. Even though he missed those two vs. San Antonio, the guy's the closest to an automatic FT shooting center I think I've ever seen.

4.) Dominance in the offense and the opposing defense's gameplan: Yao is one of the few big men in the league who's not just a finisher but also a fantastic playmaker. He is completely unselfish, almost to a fault, and always trying to find the open man. His 2.4 apg is a career-high but that figure isn't indicative of how important he is to the offense. I'd make a bet that Yao has more "hockey assists" (meaning the first of two passes to the scorer) than any other center in the league. No big man in the league gets more double and triple-teams than Yao. With nearly every team designing a scheme specifically to stop him, it's fairly obvious just how dominant a player Yao has become in the minds of coaches league-wide.

4.) Increased minutes, stamina and vitality: I don't know if it's a ginseng cocktail or loads of Red Bull but Yao is finally in it for the long haul and the Rockets can count on him to go late into the 4th even after carrying the squad through 3 quarters. He's been showing signs of this for the last two seasons despite the injuries, but there's still another 39 games to go. And then there's those playoffs. Keeping Yao at around 35-37 minutes a game is ideal. He'll be at 40+ come playoff time. He's looked like he's ready for it all season.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Yao Line 01.24.08: Return of the 'Mac

41:32 min | 6-13 FGs | 14-15 FTs | 12 rebs | 6 asts | 1 blk | recap

It must feel good to play spoiler for a change, but even with a chance to ice the game with two FTs that would have put Houston up 4 with :12 seconds remaining, T-Mac and the Rockets instead... made it interesting. Thank you Chuck Hayes, Luis... and thank you T-Mac for doing what he'd seemingly done all last regular season, put Houston on his back and carry them through the 4th.

That's right, T-Mac looks back, and like the Sonics announcers were saying, he's gonna have a hard time trying to sit out the ASG playing like that. For three and half quarters, it just looked like it wasn't the Rockets night. Yao was solid as ever, finding open teammates, getting to the line and converting. The Rockets weren't really turning over the ball (7 total) and they were shooting decently (.466 for the game), the Sonics were just shooting better (.519).

It was the defense that disappeared, despite the extraordinary defensive effort late in the 4th helped seal the win. Allowing shooters like Durant and Szczerbiak get open looks is never a good idea. That's the only the second time I've had to see Durant play a full game, but it's enough. This kid is the rookie of the year by a mile. No rookie makes more of an impact on the court than he does. If he stays healthy and gets stronger, he's gonna be prolific. That is, he aspires to be what T-Mac already it is. The Sonics color commentator (who sounded like Steve Snapper Jones, who's from next-door Oregon, but I can't be sure) put it best, I'll have to paraphrase, Durant's seen McGrady on television do this kind of thing over and over, now he gets to see it in person. Learn from it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Yao Line 01.22.08: Still Squeaking By

38:33 min | 30 pts | 12-19 FGs | 6-9 FTs | 17 rebs | 3 blks | recap

Another ugly one. Not to much to say here, only caught the tail-end of this one, but the Rockets inability to finish strong is still a problem. It's not going to happen overnight but it has to start somewhere. There was no better place than Seattle... or Philadelphia for that matter. T-Mac, again, looked good off the bench, making some clutch plays and getting Yao looks the other Rockets just can't--and vice versa. Might this line-up work down the line?

On the bright side, it was a huge statistical night for Yao. Fantasy owners rejoice! That means you, Train. Hope trading Marion for Yao isn't the worst move you ever made. Add Collison to the poster list.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Yao Line 01.15.08: Let Down and Hanging Around

41:18 min | 25 pts | 8-11 FGs | 9-10 FTs | 8 rebs | 2 blks | recap

It was 2:20 left in the 3rd, Rockets up 15, and Yao is on the line, on his way to a perfect game through three quarters. He misses the free throw, but it's all smiles, everyone's relaxed, he calmly sinks the second and gives Houston their biggest lead of the night at 16 pts. It all went dense from there, as in a gravitational collapse.

For 13 games and 8-5 record the Rockets had managed to play hard from beginning to end whether they were making shots or not. For the last 12, they looked like a team that had finally come around. Last night was a huge step back. It's as if they were actually getting full of themselves. And that's on Rafer Alston. As well as he's been playing, he still hasn't quite grasped just how to consistently control the tempo for this team; and just how important it is to do so.

Alston has been scoring points, he along with Aaron Brooks, have given the Rockets a new dimension in the half-court, one that can get to the rim when opponents focus on Yao. But until he figures out how to control the tempo, the Rockets won't get out of the first round. Which isn't to say just slow it down and keep it in the halfcourt; Tracy McGrady does that just fine and he hasn't gotten Houston out of the first round either. It's balancing the run and the halfcourt set, and knowing when to do it.

Still, it wasn't all his fault, the Rockets gave Philly the ball (Alston with 6 TOs so maybe it's more his fault) and never got back on defense, as if to say, don't worry about this bucket, we'll get the next one. That's pickup basketball, and losing pickup basketball at that. Yao needs to work harder at pinning guys like Dalembert and Calvin Booth. They were a joke in the 3rd, light dinner fare for Yao, but they stepped it up in the 4th. Yao didn't. Everyone let down in this one and they gotten bitten in the ass for it. It should serve as a reminder to the Rockets that they still have a long way to go, just like the first one in Philly... but they really shouldn't need anymore reminders.

Feigen is much harsher. Blinebury even moreso.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Yao Line 01.13.08: Two Whistles Shy of 6th Straight

41:43 min | 30 pts | 11-24 FGs | 8-11 FTs | 16 rebs | 4 blks | recap

One thing's for sure, there was no letdown after the Rockets' blowout win vs. Minnesota Friday night. Yao and the Rockets came to win against a Hornets team they'd been struggling with since Chris Paul came to town and were just two whistles shy of nabbing their 6th straight win. That's right, it has to be said. Yao was huge, but the refs ate their whistles for him late in the game... again. It's no secret amongst my circle that I for the most part think referees from the NBA to kids rec. leagues are grossly incompetent and irrational people. That's just based on my experience, but I rarely, if ever, blame a loss solely on the performance of officials. The refs cost Houston this game.

Now it takes a good team to take advantage of another team's misfortune in the officiating department--and New Orleans is certainly that good a team--but the way Yao is increasingly poorly officiated is just baffling. Is he supposed to be a star in this league or not? How does Yao not get the benefit of the doubt, late in the game while making definitive power moves into the paint? That's what every basketball coach, analyst, player and purist will say a team's star must do because you either score or get to the line. That's what Rockets did, executed, got their star the ball on two consecutive possessions while the Rockets still held a lead late in the 4th. And both times Tyson Chandler got the benefit of the doubt on plenty of contact, the latter resulting in a fastbreak 2+1 finish by Rasual Butler on one of the most liberal foul calls made in crunch time of a game this season. So Rasual Butler gets more love than Yao?

They did eventually foul Chandler out on the next two Rockets possessions but by that time, they had lost the lead and the momentum. Why are refs eating their whistles with Yao, they sure as heck didn't hesitate to give Shaq the call. Could it actually be because Yao is almost automatic from the line and referees just don't want to give it to him that easy? Seems ludicrous given how stars like Kobe and Chauncey Billups convert from charity. But what other explanation is there? Rockets fans really need to let the refs have it more often and with considerably more vigor. Their gross ineptitude is starting to cost the Rockets games.

T-Mac Pro: A virtually unstoppable and dynamic perimeter threat when Houston needs a late bucket.
T-Mac Con: This dynamic threat settles for a jumpshot.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Yao Line 01.09.08: Yao Makes it Rain Again

41:34 min | 36 pts | 14-21 FGs | 11 rebs | 3 asts | 2 blks | recap

That's four straight Ws for Houston, 3-out-of-4 on the road, all against the Eastern Conference which Yao continues to dominate. The Big Red One-One averaged 28.3 ppg on .566 from the field during that stretch.

Nice, the shooting touch is back, but has anyone else noticed that Yao has posterized more defenders in the last 10 games than probably his entire career combined? Just last night he had three. Yea, of course you've noticed, and you love it.
I'm still loving the new Rafer (20 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs--work on that lob pass, its another double-double) and the Knicks' frontcourt, too, they're like Yao's personal Nicole Ritchie, they make him look great. Not that Ritchie does that good a job, but you know what I mean, the Knicks are big and slow, butter, and David Lee is too small. All that adds up to big scoring numbers for Yao. More rebounds would be nice but again, 36 and a W, we'll take it.

T-Mac Pro: More dunks! Better lob passes to Yao off the spin.
T-Mac Con: More jumpshots... wha?! How does that work? Somehow it does.

Pic courtesy of YMM.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Yao Line 01.06.08: Yao Makes it Rain

38:35 min | 30 pts | 12-21 FGs | 6-7 FTs | 8 rebs | 6 asts | 4 blks | recap

Rockets win their second straight set of back-to-backs and go 4-2 now without T-Mac. They were pretty dominant in this one, but you see just how terrible the Knicks are. Stephon Marbury has completely given up.

Yao was again dominant, finding the open man in the first half and scoring virtually at will in the second until he began to tire late in the 3rd. Actually, it looked like Yao was well on his way to 40 points until then. He still has get a little tougher when he's out of breath and protect the ball better on the dribble--particularly when he's tired. David Lee look like a defensive genius in the last few minutes of the quarter, quicker, stronger and faster to the ball, and that's after Yao had just dropped 8 straight points on him. Lee was able to force two turnovers that led to a Knicks run that got them back to single digits, but it's the Knicks, so they still blew it. Yao didn't log a rebound during this stretch or in the 4th, that's a little troublesome, but again second game of a back-to-back and up against Dwight Howard and Eddy Curry, I'll cut him slack. Yao made it rain for three quarters and that was enough.

Aaron Brooks was killing it, though not quite as much as his former high school rival, Nate Robinson (25 pts, 5 3FGs). Brooks did hit the bigger shots and sealed the W, but I can't wait to see these guys match up again. Skip didn't shoot well, but controlled the game and made solid contributions, including some big shots in the 2nd half. Luther better get his game back together or they might not need him when McGrady comes back. Head looks better off the bench, he's one of those guys, he looks uncomfortable as a starter, like it's gone to his head, so to speak. Hopefully, he can get his groove back. The Rockets will need him down the stretch to keep hitting big shots.

With T-Mac Pro: if he's on, Rox could've won by 30+ points.
With T-Mac Con: if he's off, Rox still win... but by single digits.

Pic courtesy of YMM.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Yao Line 01.05.08: Skip Saves

Yao: 31:09 min | 10-18 FGs | 6-7 FTs | 10 rebs | 4 PFs | recap
Howard: 33:44 min | 5-11 FGs | 6-10 FTs | 8 rebs | 6 PFs

Yao continues to play well against the Eastern Conference's best center, helping the Rockets end Howard's streak of 15 consecutive double-doubles. It was a team effort, one that limited the league's leading rebounder to just 8 boards.

This is a guy who's grabbed 20+ rebounds in 3 consecutive games from Dec. 28th to 31st. But Howard is as good as advertised, add a jumper to that repertoire and he's unstoppable. Rockets simply did their best to contain him and Rashard Lewis never found a groove (other than that late three to tie it up).

The offense continues to look good and this time it translated to a win against one of the Eastern Conference's best, one that had beaten the Rockets just last month with Yao and T-Mac, though McGrady left early with that sore knee. Skip continues to roll, building his confidence (and stake in the offense) in McGrady's absence. With team's so focused on stopping Yao late in the 4th, the Rockets will need him to be a player in crunch time. And on that subject, the Rockets still need a closer. Or, as Matt Bullard mentioned on the broadcast, the Rockets need to get craftier with getting Yao the ball, meaning later in the possession with the defense out of position.

They did for one possession in the final minutes, running the play away from Yao and then getting him the ball late in the shot clock right under the basket, which seemed to indicate they recognized the same thing. But they followed that possession with another direct force-feed to Yao. Yao can be the go-to guy late in games because he can hit free throws, but every low-post closer needs another closer on the perimeter, someone who can find ways to make big shots. And it doesn't necessarily have to be one guy, the '93-'95 Rockets had a bunch of guys who hit big shots late in the game. Alston stepped up in this one, which bodes well for Houston, pulling off a feat the Rockets have rarely seen this season, taking it right down the pike and finishing at the basket to win. And with a very Nashy lefty finish at that, start rooting for Skip again.

Now that T-Mac is going to be out for at least a few more games, I'll start listing a set of pros and cons for each game he's out, one each that's been particularly illuminated in the contest.

T-Mac Con: too many jump-shots in the crunch.
T-Mac Pro: better than a turnover.

Somebody work with Luther Head on the entry pass. It's not that he can't, it's that it's gotten in his head, a case of "the yips," like Chuck Knoblauch in a Yankee uniform. Hopefully, Head can get it right before Knoblauch did, which is to say never.

Pic courtesy of YMM.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Introducing the New Yao

We couldn't resist. Pic courtesy of YMM.

The Yao Line 01.02.07: How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

42:09 min | 19 pts | 7-20 FGs | 5-6 FTs | 13 rebs | recap

Climbing back from 40-20, displaying a kind of mental and physical toughness that's been missing all season. Dunking the ball, dunking on Kevin Garnett, Yao, Houston, played just about as well as you can against the league's hottest team. Then they give it away--I mean, Garnett was more than happy to take it, but the Rockets were having a fire sale.

It's one thing to miss open 3's like Battier's, it's another to turnover the ball on an entry pass and give up offensive rebounds in the final minute. It was a tremendous and worthy effort and a great game to watch but the reasons they came up short are still the same.

The Rockets, however, aren't exactly backsliding. They still look to be improving in various parts, they are scoring better, increasingly finding effective options in the offense. Bonzi is finding myriad ways to score and Rafer Alston is finally starting to play like he deserves a starting point guard position. That's because he's finally found a consistent and efficient formula for getting to the rim. And that's through pick and roll and a good hesitation dribble.

Skip's finally realized he's not explosive enough for straight penetration and finish at the rim, or for that matter the playground crossover and finish at the rim, he has to make a living off the P&R, hesitation dribble and creative shots around the rim, Steve Nash has made a career out of it... oh, and there's that almost unparalleled court vision and dead-eye jumper. Skip can still work on the latter. But it's encouraging to see him finally get his swagger as a Rocket. As with most guards, layups and swagger translate into made jump shots. It's only been a few games, but Alston looks like he's really found a groove. Make no mistake, though, it's a direct result of McGrady being out of the line-up.

Based on last night's game, here's one reason to trade T-Mac: IF McGrady decided to shoot his way out, it would probably have a lot uglier, even if Mac dropped 40.

One reason not to trade T-Mac: He throws better entry passes than Luther Head... and rebounds better, too. So that's two reasons.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Yao Line 12.31.07: Warriors Take Happy out of New Year's game

28:01 min | 16 pts | 4-8 FGs | 8-8 FTs | 9 rebs | 3 blks | recap

37-15 in the 4th. That did in what was an otherwise pretty looking New Year's pre-party at the Toyota Center. For only 28 minutes, the Warriors did their usual little man defense on Yao with lots of front and backside help. It wasn't pretty but Yao still found ways to score. But with only 8 FGAs, you can't help but feel like they went away from him too quickly. But Rafer Alston was torching the Warriors. Bonzi was opportunistic on the offensive boards and Shane Battier was containing Baron Davis. Then there was that 4th quarter.

BD and Stephen Jackson were just lights out. It wasn't even necessarily the defense--Davis is impossible to keep contained for 48 minutes one-on-one (Battier did his best, Luther Head had no chance) and it's hard to game-plan for 7-13 three-pointers in the 4th. The Rockets just couldn't hit a bucket and even sat out Yao for the last three minutes or so.

Rotoworld has it that Yao Ming was battling the flu--like everyone else in Houston right now. They also mention that Yao is quietly putting up career bests in rebounds (10.7 rpg) and blocks (2.3 bpg).