Yao broke a broke a bone in his right leg in Houston’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 23, and will likely be out for three more weeks.
The Rockets (23-13) have responded to the loss of their four-time All-Star center by winning seven of nine games, thanks in part to the defensive presence of Mutombo.
Mutombo, who was drafted by the Nuggets (17-16) with the fourth overall pick in 1991, has been clogging the lane and forcing opponents to take poor shots just as he did when he was a four-time defensive player of the year earlier in his career.
The 40-year-old Mutombo moved into second place on the all-time blocked shots list with 3,191 on Wednesday, when he had five blocks and matched a season high with 19 rebounds in Houston’s 102-77 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Rockets held the Lakers to just 34.2 percent shooting, and opponents are shooting 39.5 percent from the floor in their last nine games. Mutombo has had eight straight games with at least 10 rebounds, and is averaging 4.9 points and 13.2 rebounds in his nine starts.
“It’s amazing, just the way I’m playing,” said the 7-foot-2 Mutombo, who averaged just under eight minutes a game before Yao’s injury, but has been averaging nearly 27 minutes a game since. “Even to myself, I’m sitting down like, ‘Whoa, is Mutombo really playing like that?’ I haven’t seen myself jumping for a rebound like that for a while.”
While Mutombo has been helping Houston defensively, McGrady has been leading the offense, though he had an off night against the Lakers.
McGrady ended his streak of six straight games with at least 30 points, managing just eight on 4-of-16 shooting, but he did have 12 assists. McGrady, who missed seven games last month with back spasms, struggled against Denver last season, averaging 17.0 points on 36.2 percent shooting in three games.
The Rockets split their four games with the Nuggets last season, and this will be their first of four meetings this year. They play again next Saturday in Houston.
Denver lost to San Antonio 92-83 on Wednesday, and has lost six of its last seven.
Smith scored 12 points in 32 minutes in his first game back after being suspended 10 games for the fight at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 16.
“He helped us a lot,” Iverson said. “He gave us an opportunity to win.”
With Smith’s return as well as the recent acquisition of Iverson, the Nuggets felt they had enough quality guards to trade Earl Boykins, who was sent to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday along with Julius Hodge in return for guard Steve Blake.
“There’s a finite amount of minutes and shots,” Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien said. “A classic point (guard) made sense to us.”
But the deal to send Boykins—who averaged 15.2 points as primarily a sixth man for the Nuggets—disappointed coach George Karl.
“I’m not saying I feel rejected or was denied a voice. I’m not sure my voice was on the side of acceptance,” said Karl, who originally didn’t want to comment on the deal.
Iverson is averaging 27.2 points in nine games with the Nuggets, who are 3-6 with him in the lineup. He scored 40 points on 16-of-29 shooting in his last game against Houston as a member of the 76ers last March.
The Nuggets scored a season low in points on Wednesday, and their once potent offense has struggled lately. Denver, which is the fourth-highest scoring team in the league at 105.2 points per game has been held to 85 or fewer in three of its last six games.