- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Washington Wizards found Yao Ming unstoppable last night at Verizon Center.

The Houston Rockets’ 7-foot-6 center put on a performance that rivaled, and perhaps exceeded, that of any other big man to play at the 9-year-old arena, scoring 23 of his season-high 38 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Rockets to a 114-109 victory. Yao also recorded six of the Rockets’ season-high 12 blocks.

The loss ended the Wizards’ winning streak at three games and dropped their record to 9-11.

Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 41 points, giving him 40 or more for the fourth time this season. Antawn Jamison added 27 points and 11 rebounds, and Caron Butler finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds for Washington. Arenas connected on seven 3-pointers. However, the Wizards were just 35-for-88 (39.8 percent) from the field.

After the loss, the Wizards learned they could be without their top two centers for a few games, possibly more.

Starter Etan Thomas left the game in the fourth quarter when he sprained his left ankle trying to stop Yao. And earlier in the game Brendan Haywood had to leave the game with a thigh bruise he suffered trying to slow Yao.

Both are listed as day-to-day. Thomas’ injury appears to be the more severe of the two. His ankle was tender and swollen as he left the building last night. Haywood walked out of the locker room on his own. When asked about his status for the team’s next game against Denver on Wednesday, Haywood said, “We’ll see on Monday,” a reference to the team’s next practice.

But anyone who sat among the fourth sellout crowd (20,173) probably left the building knowing it mattered little if either of the Wizards’ two top big men were on the floor. Yao likely would have dominated Haywood and Thomas just as he did Calvin Booth and James Lang.

“You have to do the best you can if you have personnel that can meet him eye-to-eye a little bit,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said, sounding almost amazed at what he had just seen. “The guy has an arsenal that I haven’t seen before. The guy is equally dominating on either box. Now you tell me anybody in the history of the league who has done it?”

Jordan went as far as to compare Yao with legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with whom the coach played for a short stint with the Lakers late in Abdul-Jabbar’s career.

“This guy is shooting turnaround jump shots, post moves. He makes his free throws, everything,” Jordan said.

Yao finished the game 13-for-19 from the field and pulled down 11 rebounds. It almost didn’t matter the Rockets — the best defensive team in the league this season — played the final six minutes without Tracy McGrady. McGrady scored 28 points and left the game in the fourth quarter with back spasms.

But with Yao going 6-for-6 from the field and 11-for-12 from the line in the fourth quarter alone, McGrady wasn’t needed.

“Every team doesn’t have a 7-6 go-to guy that can make shots over everyone,” said Butler, who posted a team-leading ninth double-double. “We had a chance to win at the end.”

The 6-11 Booth nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 30.7 seconds to play, pulling Washington within 110-109. But following a timeout Yao responded with an 11-foot jumper. Arenas got a good look at a 3-pointer in the corner with Yao running out at him, but the shot missed and Houston’s Shane Battier sealed the victory for Houston, which placed six players in double figures, with a pair of free throws with 6.2 seconds to play.

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