Rockets 108, Lakers 104
For weeks, it had been about height, and strength, and power, about Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal and whether the 7-foot-5 rookie from China could crack the wall of dominance that for years the 7-1 O'Neal has patrolled unquestioned.
Yet when the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers finally met at Compaq Center tonight, the man who leapt over the mountain of hype to push the Rockets to an exhilarating 108-104 overtime victory stood only 6-3. Steve Francis had a career-high 44 points, including a 25-foot three-pointer that tied the game at the end of regulation, and although O'Neal and Yao neutralized each other for much of the evening, they certainly also had plenty to say in the game's final minutes, leaving the night with the feeling of a conversation that had only just begun.
"I knew it would be a tough game for Yao, being the first time he was facing Shaq, so when he was double-teamed down low, I got in some shots on the outside," said Francis, who powered the Rockets through the meat of the game even when Yao was on the bench, as he was for large patches of the second and third quarters.
It was a marked change from the start of the night, when Yao, 22, dominated O'Neal, 30, in the opening three minutes of the game, blocking a string of O'Neal shots as he scored six straight points of his own. A slight injury to one of Yao's fingers seemed to slow him down, however, and a dangling dunk by O'Neal started a 17-0 Lakers run.
"I've never faced a player like him before," said Yao, and it wasn't until the fourth quarter that he was able to truly tangle with O'Neal once again. The two also got involved in the overtime, O'Neal with some clean free throws and Yao with a slam dunk that opened the Rockets' lead for good with 10 seconds remaining. And while it was Francis who was the constant throughout a game in which Lakers counterpoint Kobe Bryant scored 22 points, the performance was a good indication of the way Yao (10 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocked shots) could attack O'Neal (31 points, 13 rebounds, 0 blocks) in the future.
"He's a good player, and a pretty nice guy," O'Neal said afterward, noting that his slow start was due to the fact that Yao is "7-5, and everyone gets their shots blocked."
Certainly, the start was electrifying for Yao, and a remarkable achievement considering how hard it was for this game to rise to the tower of buildup that had preceded it. For months, O'Neal and Yao have been circling each other, at first humorously as O'Neal joked about elbowing Yao in the nose and then not-so-humorously, as O'Neal made controversial comments about Yao in a fake Chinese accent.
O'Neal has since apologized for his remarks, calling himself an "idiot prankster," but the controversy never dissolved, and this afternoon, a local Chinese-American advocacy group held a news conference outside the arena, condemning O'Neal and asking the NBA to intervene.
One man even held up a sign protesting "Senator Shaq Lott," a notion that made some of O'Neal's teammates smile. "His teammates protest him every once in a while, but that's usually behind closed doors," said the Lakers' Rick Fox.
Later in the day, the league released a statement saying "the NBA has reviewed Shaquille O'Neal's comments and has found them to be insensitive, although not intentionally mean-spirited," and after the game, O'Neal announced "Yao is my brother, Asian people are my brother."
League officials also pointed out that the person who seemed least offended by the comments were Yao himself, and indeed, Yao has played down any controversy. In the last few weeks, he has asked O'Neal for advice on customizing a car to fit his oversized body, and, according to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, he also invited O'Neal to dinner at his house on Thursday night. (O'Neal, whose family lives in Houston, was unable to make it, although he went out of his way to shake Yao's hand before the game.) "Some people have taken umbrage to some of the remarks Shaquille has made and that has drawn more of a focus on this game," Jackson noted after the morning shootaround, although as far as he was concerned, the match-up was already intriguing enough just in a basketball sense.
"A matchup with Shaquille has never been contested as something one-on-one -- this has always been a guy you needed three guys to play against, not one. But because Yao has played so great at the offensive end, we've all been looking to see how he's going to do at the other end of the court against O'Neal."
In the end, he did fine. And so did Francis.
"All I can say is that I helped the team today," Yao said. "But as everyone saw, he's still pretty strong."