DENVER (AP)—The Year of Yao ended the way the previous three had for Houston—without the playoffs.
But it sure was fun.
“I think the attention we got, we were just about guaranteed a playoff spot,” Francis said. “With a young team, we have to learn how to handle that next year because it will not stop from now on.”
Plenty of hype surrounded Yao after he was taken with the top pick in last year’s draft. The 7-foot-6 center from China didn’t disappoint.
Yao quickly established himself as one of the NBA’s best centers and is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year after averaging 13.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
He also brought a whole new audience to the league, leading the voting for the All-Star game and helping the Rockets move from 18th in road attendance last season to fourth this year.
“I can have a little quiet time now,” said Yao, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds by halftime and finished with five blocked shots. “I think I will leave the basketball world for a little while. I will reflect later on things.”
Yao’s impact wasn’t enough to help the Rockets overcome the loss of coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
Tomjanovich, who led Houston to consecutive NBA titles, missed the final 17 games of the season after being diagnosed with bladder cancer.
The Rockets won three straight and five of seven to end the season, but were just 8-9 under interim coach Larry Smith to finish a game behind Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West.
“I felt pretty good that we finished on a positive note,” Smith said. “I’m just disappointed that we worked so hard and we had opportunities and we didn’t get in.”
Denver finished 0-8 in April for the first winless month in team history and won just three of its final 17 games to close out its eighth consecutive losing season.
The Nuggets finished with the second-worst scoring average in league history at 84.1 points per game and had the second-worst record in franchise history (17-65).
“This has been a very painful year for us,” Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “I knew this year would be like this. I knew it would be extremely tough.”
But at least there’s hope.
The loss combined with Cleveland’s 96-86 win over Toronto early Wednesday put the Nuggets in a tie with the Cavaliers for the worst record in the league.
That means both teams will have 225 pingpong balls at the May 22 lottery, with the winner expected to take Ohio high school phenom LeBron James with the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
Fans chanted James’ name late in the fourth quarter, but the players weren’t as excited about it as they were.
“We hate that we tied with them,” Nuggets guard Junior Harrington said. “There is nobody in here that wanted to lose.”
Juwan Howard was 5-for-19 for 15 points in what could have been his last game in Denver. He’s a free agent and hasn’t indicated whether he will return.
Houston took a 68-62 lead late in the third quarter on consecutive alley-oop dunks by former Denver player James Posey. The second, with 1:02 left, led Bzdelik to call out timeout to yell at his team about getting back on defense.
It didn’t work.
Francis had a three-point play on a tough reverse with 24 seconds left after beating his man along the baseline, then had another three-point play to push the lead to 76-66 two minutes into the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t pretty but we got it done,” Smith said.
Posey, in his first game in Denver since being traded to Houston on Dec. 18,had 17 points.
The lowest scoring average in league history is 81.9, set by the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls. … Denver’s Nene Hilario and Houston’s Kelvin Cato had to be separated early in the second quarter after Cato pulled Hilario’s arm down on a shot attempt. Both received technical fouls. … The Nuggets set a team record by allowing 92.4 points per game this season. The previous record of 98 was set last season. … Houston was 22-4 when Yao blocked three or moreshots. … Houston swept the four-game series with Denver.