LOS ANGELES – Yao Ming crumpled to the court, grabbed his right knee and, well, no one needed to tell Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey how this was going to end. They all knew. Rockets coach Rick Adelman rubbed his hand over his forehead and sighed. Les Alexander, the franchise's owner, watched anxiously from his baseline seat.
The worry on their faces said enough: Not again.
"I feared the worst," Morey would later say, and why wouldn't he? These Rockets were built on a shaky foundation. Yao's brittle feet. Tracy McGrady's weak back and sore knees. Whenever the Rockets looked ready to stand among the NBA's elite, someone had to be wheeled back into the doctor's office.
So as Yao lay on the court late Monday, his face filling with pain, his Rockets only five minutes from beating the Los Angeles Lakers for the biggest upset of these playoffs, Morey had reason to fear the worst. They all did, and that's why what happened next says something about these Rockets, too.
This time, they didn't stay down.
These aren't T-Mac's Rockets anymore. They know how to take a punch, and Monday night's 100-92 series-opening victory over the Lakers proved that more than ever.
Having finally escaped the first round for the first time in a dozen years, supposedly just happy to be in the Western Conference semifinals, the Rockets outplayed the heavily favored Lakers through three quarters. After L.A. rallied to take the lead with about eight minutes left in the game, the Rockets answered with their own run – only to watch Yao collapse in a collision with Kobe Bryant.
"There were a lot of people gasping – 4 billion people gasping," said Rockets guard Brent Barry. "I think it took a lot of oxygen out of the whole nation of China."
Yao stayed on the floor for a few minutes before being helped to his feet. He took one step, nearly collapsed, took another, and nearly went down again before finally limping off the court toward the locker room. He never made it.
Yao stopped in the tunnel, squatted to flex his knee, then pushed himself against the wall to stretch some more. Within a few minutes, the Rockets looked up to see their giant center walking back toward them.
"It was like Rocky coming back out there," Adelman said.
Yao promptly floored the Lakers with a 20-foot jump shot. He would go on to add six more free throws, scoring eight of his 28 points in the final 3½ minutes to keep the Lakers at bay.
Afterward, Yao sounded embarrassed about the scare he gave the Rockets, refusing to call his sore knee an injury. Bryant had collided with him, banging knee on knee hard enough that Yao told the team's medical staff it felt like a hammer hitting him. But he also knew he wasn't seriously hurt. Once the Rockets – Morey included – saw the replay on the overhead scoreboard, their own fears melted.
"Nothing to worry about," Yao said.
With the Rockets, there's always reason to worry. Nothing has ever been simple for them. Midway through last season, they looked like the West's top challenger to the Lakers but then lost Yao to a stress fracture in his left foot. Two seasons ago, Yao missed six weeks after fracturing the bone under the same knee he hurt Monday.
Yao held up well this season, missing only five games, but his teammates couldn't say the same. Shane Battier was out for the season's first month. McGrady and Ron Artest seemingly traded games; when one played, the other couldn't or wouldn't. T-Mac finally shut himself down in February to undergo microfracture surgery on his left knee.
McGrady's will-he-will-he-not routine had worn on teammates and coaches alike, and his departure – coupled with Rafer Alston's trade to Orlando – helped the Rockets settle into their roles. With McGrady as their guide, the Rockets were never more than frontrunners. When the going got tough, T-Mac usually got his vacation itinerary.
Once McGrady declared himself done, Adelman made sure of this much: The Rockets would grow around Yao. He knew they would miss McGrady’s playmaking skills in the fourth quarter, as they have at times. But he also knew these young Rockets would defend and play hard.
"Every night, I knew we were going to get an effort," Adelman said. "I never, ever thought we weren't going to get an effort. We may not play well, but we were going to get an effort."
The Rockets delivered another on Monday. Aaron Brooks helped splinter the Lakers' defense. Artest shot well enough to score 21 points. Battier hounded Bryant long enough, Barry said, to know "what flavor of gum he was chewing." Bryant scored 32 points but needed 31 shots to get them.
Battier sets the tone for these Rockets, as much in the locker room as on the court. After Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic cracked him with an elbow, Battier walked off the floor with blood streaming down his face. He needed four stitches to close the gash over his eye. Earlier, Bryant had tried to hogtie him during a scramble for the ball.
The Rockets had lost all four of their previous games with the Lakers this season, collapsing in the final quarter of the past three. After Monday, however, it was the Lakers who were answering questions about their toughness. Andrew Bynum played only six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. Pau Gasol delivered an uninspired game that looked like it had come straight from last season's NBA Finals.
"I don't know if we can play much worse, to be honest with you," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson didn't seem all that worried about his team's performance. Neither did Bryant. The Lakers remain the deeper, more talented team in the series. Maybe Bryant, who had missed practice on Sunday with a sore throat, feels better in Game 2. Maybe Bynum stays out of foul trouble. Maybe the Lakers simply used Game 1 to shake off their week's worth of rust.
"I don't think you'll see that tentativeness there Wednesday," Bryant said.
They better hope so. The Rockets walked into their building and beat them, playing like they belonged on this stage, like they didn't know they aren't supposed to win this series.
" 'Underdog,' that's a word I just learned a couple days ago," Yao said.
"It's like NBA say: ‘Where amazing happens.' "
For one night, at least, amazing happened. Yao limped back into the game and into the series. Maybe these Rockets aren't so fragile anymore.
And maybe everyone should feel a little less certain how this is going to end.