Rockets 93, Wizards 86

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

-- Yaouch!

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5 first overall draft pick from China, made his first NBA start Friday night and left the Washington Wizards wishing Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich would have kept him on the bench for one more game.

Yao scored 18 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, blocked 4 shots and led the Rockets to a 93-86 victory over the Wizards before a sellout crowd at Compaq Center. The loss dropped Washington to 6-6, 1-4 on the road.

"My confidence is growing," Yao said.

Yao's solid all-around game came after he scored 30 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a loss to Dallas on Thursday -- an effort that earned him the starting job. The momentum from that performance carried over right away as Yao scored 10 first-quarter points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked two shots, including a dunk attempt by Jerry Stackhouse.

"There's an expression in China that says a good start is half of success," Yao said.

"He's making his presence felt," said Rockets guard Steve Francis, who had 16 points, a game-high 7 assists and 6 rebounds. "He's more assertive. He's getting more assertive when he gets the ball. He's really getting comfortable with what we're doing."

Said Wizards Coach Doug Collins: "Yao Ming is so big that they have a target they can throw ball in the post and when he doesn't score he forced our defense to collapse and he can find open people. We were not able to threaten them inside. The huge difference is they could threaten us in there and we couldn't."

Houston's front court outscored Washington's 60-16. Washington's starting front court of Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Bryon Russell combined for seven points -- one fewer than Yao registered in the game's first nine minutes. Rookie forward Jared Jeffries had nine points off the bench.

Washington's ineptitude up front was only part of the problem. The Wizards lost the game in the third quarter when they could not figure out how to get high percentage shots against Houston's 2-3 zone defense; a defense they managed to work through in the first half because they made 7 of 9 three pointers.

"I told our coaches that was fool's gold," Collins said of the Wizards' long-range accuracy.

The Rockets (7-4) outscored the Wizards 31-16 in the third, making 72 percent of their shots to Washington's 30. Houston overcame a 45-44 halftime deficit with a 25-7 run in the third that left the Wizards trying to climb out of a 75-61 hole going into the fourth.

"We started living with our perimeter shots," said Wizards guard Michael Jordan, who had eight points on 4-of-15 shooting. "We didn't penetrate. We can't stand there and shoot outside shots. They were playing a zone, yes, but we've got to find holes to penetrate and get shots inside. I missed easy shots. I fell right into the same [trap] as the rest of the team."

How badly did the Wizards avoid the middle? They took just eight foul shots, making seven.

"That shows that they were the aggressors," Stackhouse said.

The vexing part is that it wasn't Yao, Francis or any of the usual suspects that took Washington apart in the third. It was guard Juaquin Hawkins, who had 12 points (14 overall) on 5-of-5 shooting. Hawkins was wide open for shots because the Wizards collapsed on Yao and the deft big man with soft hands found his open teammates.

"My assists have increased because people are looking at me as an offensive threat," Yao said. "When I get the ball I have to pay attention to my teammates as well."

Washington guard Larry Hughes scored 14 of his 22 points in the second half. Tyronn Lue, who was 3 of 4 from three-point range, added 14 points. Houston's Glen Rice matched Francis with 16 points. Forward Kenny Thomas added 12.

"We didn't have any presence going to the basket," Stackhouse said. "Some of that had to do with their defense. We've got to have guys step up and play better."

The cavalry of Michael Jordan, left, Etan Thomas and Jared Jeffries, right, close in on Yao Ming as he prepares to shoot.Rockets' Steve Francis drives to the basket past Wizards' Brendan Haywood during the first period of Houston's 93-86 victory.