It sure didn’t look good when Yao limped off the court and disappeared into the tunnel.
A few minutes later he was back, waiting at the scorer’s table to return to the physical game. Although the Rockets absorbed some hits and shed the most blood, they outmuscled the Los Angeles Lakers 100-92 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday night.
Yao downplayed the injury and quick recovery, but his team didn’t.
“I don’t know what our trainer did to Yao,” coach Rick Adelman said. “It was like Rocky coming back out there. We really needed him on the court.”
Artest said he was proud of Yao.
“He didn’t even make it to the training room,” Artest said. “Time was of essence. Every second, it was killing him not to be on the bench or on the floor. He came right out. I was so proud of him. He showed so much courage and knew that we needed him.”
After Bryant and Yao collided, Los Angeles’ Pau Gasol picked up the ball for a slam dunk that pulled the Lakers to 85-79 with 4:54 left.
Yao had eight points after coming back; a jumper and six free throws. He made all 10 of his free throws.
Yao said he got hit pretty hard and just needed to walk it off.
“My knee feels fine, thanks for asking,” he said. “There’s no need to worry about it. I just need to put ice on it.
“Tonight I think my team had a great night,” Yao added. “Everybody came out with a very active attitude. I think Ron Artest and Shane Battier did a great job guarding Kobe. Everybody played very unselfish.”
Bryant, who finished a distant second to LeBron James in NBA MVP voting announced earlier Monday, scored 32 points, doing his best to keep the Lakers in the game despite missing practice on Sunday with a sore throat. He scored 22 of the Lakers’ final 42 points.
“I’m fine,” Bryant said. “My energy felt fine, I was OK.
“We just blew some defensive assignments at key moments,” Bryant added.
Yao was too much for the Lakers and the Rockets were much livelier on offense as they wrested away home-court advantage from the top-seeded Lakers.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
“I think we were hungry to win the first game, like we had in the first game of the last (series),” Yao said, referring to the six-game win over Portland. “We know we have to respect them. They will come back strong in Game 2.”
The Lakers fell behind in the first quarter and never got into a rhythm.
“I didn’t like the start of the game at all,” coach Phil Jackson said. “I didn’t like our poise, our control, the way we tried to execute our offense or not execute our offense, little things that we have to do better.”
Jackson said he’s confident the Lakers will bounce back.
“I don’t know if we could play much worse, quite honestly,” he said.
“We played really bad, shot the ball horrendously from the 3-point line,” Bryant said. “A lot of that was desperation at the end, but still, we missed a lot. We shot horribly from the free throw line.”
The Lakers made only 12 of 19 free throws.
Battier needed four stitches to close a gash over his left eye in the closing seconds of the first quarter. Battier had blood streaming down his face after getting hit when Los Angeles’ Sasha Vujacic swatted a loose ball out to Bryant. The force of the impact knocked Battier to the ground.
Workers spent a few minutes wiping blood off the court.
Battier returned late in the second quarter.
Earlier in the quarter, the Lakers’ Pau Gasol had trainers work on a cut over his left eye, and Gasol returned to the game, finishing with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
The Lakers trailed 59-50 with just less than 6 minutes left in the third quarter after Artest hit a 3-pointer. Bryant scored 11 of the Lakers’ last 14 points in the quarter, which ended with the Rockets ahead 70-67.
Bryant made three jumpers in just over than 2 minutes, helping keep the Lakers close as both Yao and Brooks drove the baseline for dunks.