“Here we go again.”
Chances are those exact thoughts filtered through the mind of each and every member of the Houston Rockets organization upon first hearing the news that franchise center Yao Ming would be lost for the season due to a stress fracture in his left foot. You could hardly blame them for momentarily bemoaning their misfortune. After all, the timing of Yao’s injury couldn’t be worse; coinciding as it does with the Rockets most inspired play in more than a decade.
But give the team credit. Armed with every imaginable excuse to turn Tuesday night’s game against visiting Washington into a giant group pity party, the Rockets opted for a block party instead; rejecting shot after shot on their way to a resounding 94-69 win over the Wizards—Houston’s 13th consecutive victory.
“You allow yourself a second of self pity because we were playing so well and [Yao’s] such a huge piece of it, but then you gotta move on,” said Shane Battier after the game. “Like P.T. Barnum said, ‘The show must go on.’ We’re in the midst of a playoff race so there’s not a lot of time to worry about who’s not going to be there.”
Setting the tone from the outset was the venerable Dikembe Mutombo, who turned the game’s first few minutes into his own personal finger-wagging fiesta. Deke didn’t just turn back the clock, he seemingly turned aside every Wizards foray to the hoop in the opening frame. And though his trademark finger wag was directed at the opposition, it clearly sent a message to his teammates as well: There would be no excuses or pity parties on this night.
“Let me just say that I am privileged to be one of Mutombo’s teammates,” said Chuck Hayes. “That guy, he came out and set the tone. There was a big question mark as to how we would respond, and he hadn’t played practically the whole season. For him to come and still dominate the paint like the way he did… I am privileged to know him and even more grateful to be his teammate.”
Of course, Mutombo can’t possibly fill that gaping 7’ 6’’, 310 pound hole in the Rockets lineup by himself. No one can. So for the remainder of the season, Houston will rely on a four-headed monster of sorts to patrol the paint. Last night’s results were far better than anything even the most optimistic fan could have imagined as Deke, Hayes, Luis Scola and Carl Landry combined to produce 22 boards, 4 blocks, and 34 points thanks to a scintillating 16 of 19 performance from the field.
“It’s huge,” said Hayes. “I’m pretty sure a lot of other Western Conference teams, when they saw the news about Yao they figured that we’d be out, we’d be done. But I think we proved a point that we’re still going to fight our way through this Western Conference.”
Yet to be seen of course is how the Rockets will fare once the emotion wears off and the degree of difficulty increases. But the message from the locker room rang out loud and clear last night: The mourning period—however brief—is over and excuses will not be tolerated.
“It doesn’t really matter how we think we match up, it’s about playing the game," said Battier. "The good news is our bandwagon is clear now, so we don’t have to worry about people distracting us with bandwagon talk. Now we can just go out and play basketball.” – Jason Friedman