The Houston Rockets haven’t let the absence of one of their stars disrupt their fight for playoff position in the tightly packed Western Conference. Adding Yao Ming to their list of injured players, however, might be too much to overcome.
The Rockets hope Yao can return from a foot injury and help their chances for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason Monday night when they host the New Orleans Hornets, fighting for position in the bottom half of the West playoff field.
Houston (52-28) has withstood a season-ending knee injury to Tracy McGrady to clinch its third consecutive playoff appearance. The Rockets are 21-7 since McGrady’s last game Feb. 9.
They’ve relied heavily on Yao during that stretch, but the All-Star complained of pain in his right foot after pregame warmups Friday and wasn’t available for that night’s game against Golden State. He was reportedly going to be re-examined over the weekend, and his status for Houston’s two remaining regular-season games is uncertain. The postseason begins Saturday.
The Rockets, tied for the third-best record in the conference, are concerned not just because Yao is their leading scorer and rebounder, but also because he has a history of foot injuries. The 7-foot-6, 310-pound center missed the final 26 games of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He missed the final four games of the 2005-06 season to have surgery on his right foot.
However, Yao’s injury wasn’t a big issue Friday night, when the Rockets rode Luis Scola’s career-high 28 points and a double-double from backup center Dikembe Mutombo to a 113-109 road win over Golden State.
The 42-year-old Mutombo, who has played in only nine games this season, had 10 points and 15 rebounds in 34-plus minutes - all season highs - for the 471st double-double of his 17-year NBA career.
“All I knew was if I could go out and do the things I love to do, which is playing defense, rebounding, blocking shots and controlling the paint, our team would have a chance to win,” said Mutombo, who added four blocked shots.
The Hornets (49-31) have struggled lately in part because they’ve also been missing their starting center, with Tyson Chandler sidelined since March 16 due to an ankle injury. His return is uncertain.
Despite Chandler’s continued absence, New Orleans picked up a 102-92 home victory in a crucial meeting with Dallas on Sunday. Chris Paul had 31 points, 17 assists and nine rebounds as the Hornets won for the second time in six games and broke a tie with the Mavericks for sixth place in the West.
“Obviously, you want to be seeded as high as possible, but it’s all about us playing well,” said Paul, who was 11-for-15 from the field. “Whatever seed we get, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Hornets have dropped two of their three meetings with the Rockets, shooting just 41.7 percent. Paul has posted a double-double in each game and is averaging 22.3 points and 11.0 assists in the series, but he’s been held to 19-for-49 (38.8 percent) shooting.
The Rockets hope to again limit Paul’s efficiency Monday.
“We have to make sure we continue to realize what got us here,” forward Ron Artest said. “We have to understand that the reason we are here, is from our defense, and playing together.”
Though he’s been valuable defensively, Artest has had his own offensive struggles against New Orleans this season, averaging 14.0 points while going 10-for-33 (30.3 percent) from the field and 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) from 3-point range in two games.
The Rockets finish the regular season on the road against Dallas on Wednesday. The Hornets close with a road game against San Antonio that night.