Remember the notion from earlier this week that the Rockets' late-game offense might be better off without Yao Ming?
That didn't last long.
With the Rockets trailing by four late and in the midst of yet another fourth-quarter funk, Yao snapped the Rockets out of it in a major way. Houston's star big man scored 15 points in the final five minutes of regulation and in the two overtime periods, leading the Rockets to a 106-101 double-overtime victory over the Pistons on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
"Until they stop him, we've got to go through him every time," coach Rick Adelman said. "If they're going to play one-on-one, then he's got a huge advantage."
Yao, who scored 31 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked four shots for the game, scored seven consecutive points in the final five minutes of regulation to briefly give the Rockets (45-25) a three-point lead. But the Pistons (33-34) tied it up and forced overtime when the Rockets didn't give Yao the ball on two possessions in the final minute.
"In the fourth quarter, I scored seven points in a row and I stopped asking for the ball," Yao said. "And in the first overtime, I scored the first two possessions and then that disappeared.
"I need to say, 'Get me the ball.'"
But in the second overtime period, Yao asserted himself on both ends of the floor and this time put away Detroit for good. His two turnaround jumpers were critical, but he also came up with three rebounds and two critical blocks to stymie the Pistons' attempt to stay in the game.
"We had to go with what was working," said Aaron Brooks, who scored 14 points and swished two crucial three-pointers. "Yao was playing unbelievable today, and I wanted to get him in the key where he is most effective.
"We did a good job of finishing."
It took the Rockets 48 minutes and almost two overtime periods before they could completely figure out how to finish, of course. While the Rockets clearly play better as a team this season with Tracy McGrady on the sidelines, they still haven't found their stride in replacing his playmaking ability in the final minutes of close games.
Ron Artest, who scored 26 points, admirably filled the closer's role on Monday in New Orleans. But after Yao had taken control in both the fourth quarter and overtime, it was Artest and not Yao who initiated the final-minute offense. Both times, the Rockets went without a field goal and the Pistons rallied to tie the game.
According to Adelman, it wasn't a case of Artest being too selfish. Rather, he said it's the responsibility of Yao to establish himself in those situations.
"He's got to demand the ball," Adelman said. "There was one possession there toward the end of the game in the first overtime where he's just got to go to the post and tell them, 'Bring it to me,' and instead he's looking around playing pick-and-roll with Ron.
"He had just scored like six times in a row, he's just got to demand the ball. He's got the mentality that he's trying to fit in, and sometimes you just have to take control."
Interestingly enough, even with the team's well-documented fourth-quarter struggles, the Rockets have now completed more fourth-quarter comebacks this season (five) than in both of the prior two seasons combined (three).
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"We have to learn how to play these types of games," said Luis Scola, who scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds. "It might happen in the playoffs. We hung in there, we fought."
With Yao out with the flu, Artest and Von Wafer took control of the fourth quarter in New Orleans with dribble penetration, leading some to question if Yao limited the team's ball movement.
But on Wednesday, with every other Rocket struggling to create his own shot, Yao overwhelmed Detroit's Kwame Brown and Antonio McDyess. His array of low post moves carried the Rockets to the win, and proved yet again that the fate of the Rockets is often tied to the play of their star center.
"I feel very tired," McDyess said after the game. "(Yao) has me by over a hundred pounds and he beats on you. He's a skilled man with a nice attitude. I love him as a player."