For now, Yao still is the king of basketball in China.
Yao and Yi each had their share of highlights in the much-anticipated first matchup of the country’s greatest player and its top rising star, and Yao’s Houston Rockets beat Yi’s Milwaukee Bucks 104-88 on Friday night.
Yao, the five-time All-Star, had 28 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Yi, the 20-year-old rookie, had 19 points and nine rebounds.
“His talent is unbelievable,” Yao said. “You ask me how good he can be? I can’t say that. But I think he’ll be better than me.”
When asked why he thought Yi would surpass him in the future, Yao thought for a moment.
“I’m older,” Yao said with a smile.
The game was an enormous event in China, where it started early Saturday morning. It was being broadcast on 19 television networks and NBA officials were expecting the largest-ever viewing audience for a game, well over 200 million.
The duo did their best to forget about the magnitude of the game back home.
“When I stepped on the court, I didn’t think about that,” Yao said. “All I saw was 18,000 fans here, that’s it. I know that there are many in China, my family and my friends. But when I play on the court, I focus on basketball.”
The Bucks have lost eight straight games in Houston and haven’t won there since 1999. But this one was more about Yao and Yi than the teams involved.
McGrady shadowed Yi most of the game and walked away impressed.
“He’s pretty good,” McGrady said. “He has a tremendous upside in this league.”
About 90 minutes before the game, Yao and Yi shook hands at midcourt and posed for about two dozen photographers, most of them Chinese. It was a staged photo opportunity, and Yao had to wait a few minutes before Yi came out of the Bucks locker room.
“You know what?” Yao said afterward, with a kidding smile. “Rookies should not do that.”
The two slapped hands and smiled before the opening tip. When the ball went up, Yao inadvertently tapped it straight at Yi. Guarded by McGrady, Yi missed a shot from the wing.
Both players had impressive blocked shots early. There were a few embarrassing goofs, too. Yao missed an uncontested dunk with four minutes left in the first quarter. Yi shot an airball a minute later.
Yao banked in a shot with 21.6 seconds left in the quarter, the first field goal by either star. The Bucks led 25-24 after one.
With Yi resting on the bench, Milwaukee missed its first six shots of the second quarter during a 16-1 Rockets run. Yi returned with 8:54 left in the first half and was promptly called for goaltending when he leaped high to swat Shane Battier’s shot.
Yi ended Milwaukee’s drought with his first field goal, swishing a jumper from the wing with 7:52 left in the half to cut Houston’s lead to 40-28.
But Yao looked better in the first half, scoring 14 with six rebounds and three assists to help Houston to a 50-41 lead.
Yi shined in the third quarter to help the Bucks close to within six.
He banked in a straight-on 3-pointer 40 seconds before halftime, drawing a disbelieving roll of the eyes from McGrady, then laid in an alley-oop pass from Redd. Yi sank another 3-pointer with 5:41 left in the third quarter to cut Houston’s lead to 66-60.
“He didn’t score a lot in the first half,” Yao said, “but he turned it around in the second half. He really helped his team stay in the game.”
With Yi on the bench again, the Bucks cut Houston’s lead to three early in the fourth. Yao kept the Rockets ahead, flipping in a short jumper and hitting two free throws for an 82-77 lead.
The two then hit three consecutive shots. Yi hit a running jumper with 8:26 remaining. Yao answered with another turnaround. Yi swished a 3-pointer to make it 84-82.
Yi said he was never trying to match Yao’s numbers.
“I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of Yi or Yao,” Yi said. “It was the Rockets against the Bucks. I was concerned about the game.”
Bonzi Wells scored inside before McGrady hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put Houston up 89-82.
Yi finally defended Yao near the 4-minute mark, but Wells scored twice to push the lead back into double digits and the Rockets stayed in control from there.
Yao and Yi embraced at midcourt when the final horn sounded, saying little before walking in opposite directions.
Six continents were represented on the two benches—Yao and Yi, from Asia; Dikembe Mutombo, from Africa (Zaire); Andrew Bogut, from Australia; Dan Gadzuric, from Europe (born in the Netherlands) and Luis Scola, from South America (Argentina), in addition to the 24 North American players on both rosters. … Capitalizing on the heavy presence of the Chinese media at the game, the Rockets announced a partnership with Chinese shoe company Anta. … Two of Yao’s former coaches—Rudy Tomjanovich and Del Harris—chatted on press row before the game. Tomjanovich was the Rockets’ coach for Yao’s rookie season; Harris coached the Chinese national team at the 2004 Olympics.