Rockets-Cavaliers: Yao's Revenge
LeBron James has a lengthy history of poster-quality slam dunks.
But on Thursday night, Yao Ming emphatically turned the tables on the Cleveland superstar.
Yao overwhelmed James on two game-defining plays, sparking the Rockets to a 93-74 home victory over a Cleveland (44-12) team that entered Thursday with the NBA's second-best record. It was by far the most impressive of Rockets' (37-21) six consecutive wins, all of which have come without Tracy McGrady.
"It's awesome to see the big fella make plays like that," Shane Battier said. "Usually you're on the other end of that, with the LeBron James dunk and block. We already were once this year. It's just awesome to see him do that."
Two months ago in Cleveland, James punctuated a Cavs win over the Rockets with a powerful rejection of Yao in the final minute, after which Yao angrily told the Cavs "see you in Houston."
In Houston, Yao got his revenge and then some.
With the Rockets clinging to a five-point lead early in the third period, Aaron Brooks drove inside, collapsed the Cleveland defense and dished to Yao. And like the last time, James rotated over in help defense and elevated for the block.
Only this time, Yao posterized James, throwing down a vicious slam over the sixth-year superstar, drawing James' fourth foul and bringing the sold-out Toyota Center crowd of 18,399 to its feet.
"If you get a chance to dunk on LeBron, that's one hell of a poster," said Ron Artest, who scored 15 points and hounded James defensively all night. "I'd sure like a poster like that. It absolutely fired us up and gave us an emotional lift."
The dunk would've been memorable enough for Yao, who led the Rockets with 28 points on an incredible 13-of-15 from the field. But with the Rockets up 14 in the fourth, Yao struck again.
Perhaps embarrassed from the earlier play, James drove straight at Yao, soaring in for one of his trademark jams. But Yao met James in midair, emphatically swatting the ball with enough force to send James sprawling to the floor and looking to the sideline for answers.
"Great defenders always have support behind them, and the Rockets do with Yao," James said. "But they've also got two of the best on-ball individual defenders [Artest and Battier] in the whole league on the same team. It's a challenge."
It was a fitting end to a superb defensive performance by the Rockets, who held arguably the NBA's best player to 21 points on only 7-of-21 shooting. Swarming defense from Artest and Battier limited the well-rounded James, who averages more than 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game to go along with 28 points, to only one rebound and no assists.
It was the first time in James' career that he went without an assist, and the 74 points were a season low for the Cleveland offense. For the win streak as a whole, the Rockets have held opponents to an average of only 83.7 points per game.
"Defensively, that was probably our best game in a long while," Battier said. "It was a total team effort. We kept LeBron to zero assists, and that's pretty remarkable. We wanted to keep him out of the paint, and that's a lot tougher to do than say. We just tried to make him take tougher jump shots and make him play a half-court game."
On the offensive end, Battier said the Rockets were "stagnant" early on, and needed "more confidence and more flow" to reach a higher level. But Von Wafer came off the bench and delivered exactly that for the Rockets, routinely beating the Cavs downcourt in transition and scoring 19 points, including four three-pointers.
"They are a very good team with or without McGrady," James said of the Rockets. "T-Mac hasn't played in a lot of games the last few years, so they've already adjusted to having him out. They feed off Yao and you can see what happened tonight."
The six-game win streak, however, has come entirely within the friendly confines of Toyota Center, where the Rockets are 24-6 this season. To keep it going, they'll need to have success at Chicago on Saturday and at Minnesota on Sunday, a potentially challenging task for a group that's only 13-15 on the road.
But for the Rockets, the matchup with the Cavs was more than just one game. It was a chance to see where they fit in among the NBA's elite, and for Yao, a personal chance at redemption.
Yao and the Rockets delivered on both counts and left the court brimming with confidence.
"It is a big win," Yao said. "We played against one of the best quality teams in the league. That is a really good test for us to see how far we can go."
On a night the city of Houston turned out to see James, Yao stole the show.
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