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Rockets' season hinges on Yao

HOUSTON – One by one, the questions came at Yao Ming(notes). He smiled. He rubbed his hand through his hair. He tried. But on this night, the Houston Rockets' giant was short on answers.

Yao thought he hurt his left foot at the beginning of the second quarter. Or was it the end of the quarter? He wasn't completely sure. He did tweak it again – twice in the second half – when he landed on someone else's foot. At least, that's what he remembered.

"Different twists," he called it.

Did that mean he specifically hurt his ankle? Or was the problem with his actual foot?

"On my leg, on my body," he said, a bit exasperated.

Yao could guarantee he knew only this much: "It feels sore."

And, really, that's all that matters. The Rockets are down 2-1 to the Los Angeles Lakers, unsure if their franchise center will play in Game 4, their season possibly hinging on whether he does.

The Rockets announced on Saturday Yao sprained his ankle and will be re-evaluated before Sunday afternoon's game.

"If he can't go," said Rockets forward Shane Battier(notes), "this isn't the first time this team has faced adversity."

The Rockets have weathered more injuries than they care to remember. Battier's foot. Tracy McGrady's(notes) knee. Dikembe Mutombo's(notes) knee. Carl Landry's(notes) bullet wound.

They also know this is different. The Rockets don't need Yao to just play on Sunday afternoon. They need him to play better.

Yao totaled 19 points, 14 rebounds and a pair of blocks in Houston's 108-94 loss on Friday – credible numbers considering he was laboring on his ailing foot through much of the final quarter. It was also a significant upgrade over the Rockets' Game 2 loss, in which he played just 26 minutes because of foul trouble and attempted only four shots.

But against these Lakers and Kobe Bryant(notes), that's not enough. Yao missed six of his eight shots in the second half, two of which were blocked by Bryant.

Bryant, at last check, gives up about a foot to Yao.

Yao said his foot "was getting worse and worse" in the second half. Midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like each step brought him more and more pain. Team officials didn't seem overly alarmed; after all, they continued to play him. But Yao also missed the last third of last season, including the playoffs, because of a stress fracture in the same foot. Given his history of injuries, the Rockets are conditioned to schedule an MRI every time he loses an eyelash.

Ron Artest(notes) said Yao told him he'd play on Sunday. "Just got a little sprain," Artest said. But the rest of Rockets weren't so sure.

The short turnaround won't work in his favor, even if he is cleared.

And if Yao does play? The Rockets will ask more from him than he gave in Game 3, and that still might not be enough.

The Lakers are gradually rediscovering what has made them the most feared team in the West. They're talented, they're deep, and when they play hard and smart, they're hard to beat.

They defended well enough to force 17 turnovers. They sped up the pace. And with Derek Fisher(notes) tweeting out his one-game suspension at the downtown Four Seasons and providing the kind of incisive analysis 140 characters allows ("Have to finish the quarter strong. Increase this lead."), they got good minutes from Jordan Farmar(notes).

Having Kobe Bryant is also often good for a win – or 67.

This time, Bryant kept his elbows to himself, shot poorly and … dominated just the same. He needed 28 shots for his 33 points, but no one complained about his timing. He ignited the Lakers by making five of his first six shots. He shed Artest just long enough to bury a stone-cold 33-foot jumper at the third-quarter buzzer. With less than three minutes left and the Rockets clinging to their last hopes, he dropped in another 3-pointer, this time at the end of the shot clock.

"Just doing what I do best," Bryant said.

If not humble, he's at least honest. After the Lakers' afternoon shootaround on Friday, Bryant was asked if he expected Artest to come at him harder, given that Artest was upset about being the target of one of Bryant's elbows in Game 2.

Bryant stared blankly at his questioner before responding: "Do I look like I care?"

Bryant knew he had the Rockets where he wanted them. That one well-placed elbow in Game 2 had done the job. Artest had lost his cool, rushed over to yell at Bryant and been ejected. The chances of Ron-Ron getting much of a break the rest of the series dropped significantly.

Sure enough, with the Lakers salting away the final minute of Friday's victory, Pau Gasol(notes) drove to the basket and was met hard by Artest. Gasol dropped to the court and Artest was given a type-2 flagrant foul and an automatic ejection. The punishment was more severe than the hit. Artest fouled Gasol hard, but he also got a good part of the ball. Rajon Rondo's(notes) head shot on Brad Miller(notes) in the Celtics-Bulls series was worse, and it didn't even draw a flagrant 1 call.

Artest refused to complain afterward, saying only he hoped the NBA would rescind at least one of his flagrant points. League officials granted the request, but they've also sent a message with the back-to-back ejections: They don't want Artest tearing up their biggest meal ticket. The Lakers are far too valuable to the NBA's interest to be mishandled.

So, for all the strides Artest has made this season, it seems he still can't escape his past sins.

"It wasn't racial profiling," Artest said Friday morning when discussing his Game 2 ejection. "It was past-history profiling. … I'm going to call the police."

Local law enforcement can't provide the help the Rockets need. To beat the Lakers, to match Bryant, they, too, need someone to play great.

Artest? He's too erratic to be counted on; those same tough shots he hit in the first two games weren't going to fall for an entire series.

No, the Rockets need Yao. There are times when his teammates don't work enough to get him the ball, but he also must do a better job of exploiting his matchups. It's not always fair to ask, especially if he's hurting, but this is the burden that comes with being a franchise player.

Yao has already delivered once this series, scoring 28 points in the Rockets' Game 1 victory after leaving briefly following a knee-on-knee collision with Kobe. Maybe he'll also be able to play through his latest injury.

The Rockets have previously weathered Yao's absence, because of foul trouble or injury. And as coach Rick Adelman pointed out, they've also won.

But now? With Bryant playing as he has? With the Lakers starting to regain their confidence?

If Yao doesn't play?

Adelman laughed. "If he doesn't," he said, "we're in trouble."