Yao Ming looks to lead the Houston Rockets to their third win in four games without McGrady and Artest on Monday, but they face a tough opponent as they host the Northwest Division-leading Denver Nuggets.
Artest (16.0 points per game) and McGrady (15.4) are the second- and third-leading scorers for Houston (25-16), but the Rockets are having to make do without both of them lately. McGrady has missed the last three games as he rests his chronically sore left knee for two weeks, and Artest’s balky right ankle has sidelined him for four straight games and six of seven.
On Saturday, though, the Rockets improved to 2-1 in the last three games without their two stars, beating Miami 93-86 at home. Yao essentially carried the team, going 12-for-12 from the field to set a franchise record and finishing with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
“I was able to get the ball in the post and I had energy,” said Yao, whose only miss came at the free-throw line, where he was 2-for-3. “I was close to the basket. This doesn’t happen every night, but that’s the way I was played.”
“We feel comfortable together,” Yao said.
Wafer has certainly looked comfortable during the most significant action of his four-year NBA career. Seven of the guard’s eight career starts have come in the last seven games. He’s scored in double figures in all seven of those contests and is averaging 16.3 in nine games since the New Year - well above his 9.6 season scoring average.
Wafer missed the last meeting between these teams due to an ankle injury, but Yao scored 32 to lead the Rockets to a 108-96 home victory on Dec. 16.
The Nuggets (27-14) won the other matchup in this season’s series, 104-94 in Denver on Nov. 30 behind 28 points from Chauncey Billups. The home team has won all six games between these clubs - three for each - since the start of last season.
Denver arrives in Houston after completing its longest homestand of the season with a 5-2 record. The Nuggets lost the finale Saturday night, falling 106-88 to Orlando, which is tied for the league lead with 33 wins.
Linas Kleiza had a season-high 26 points, but Denver shot just 36.5 percent (31-for-85) from the field and matched its lowest point total of the season.
“We didn’t have a lot of weapons making shots,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “LK was our only guy in a groove. Probably need more than that to beat one of the top five teams in basketball.”
Billups had 18 points, snapping a personal streak of five games with 20 or more. Though he played well at home against the Rockets, he had only eight points in last month’s visit to Houston, one of only two games this season in which Billups failed to score in double figures.