Thursday, February 12, 2004

The development of Yao Ming is the unanticipated wrinkle that undermined Shaquille O’Neal in their last meeting.

One game in Yao’s favor does not constitute a passing of the torch between the two giants.

Yet it does represent a closing of the gap, if not an encroachment on O’Neal’s domain.

O’Neal was not in a position to thwart Yao in the waning minutes after fouling out with 3:20 left Thursday night. Yao scored 11 of his team’s last 15 points, providing the finishing touches to the Rockets’ 102-87 victory.

Yao finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds to O’Neal’s 24 points and nine rebounds, as if the bare facts reveal the hurt to O’Neal’s ego.

Yao carried his team when it mattered, and there was nothing O’Neal could do.

“I was very surprised how I was able to do,” Yao said, expressing a humility foreign to most Americans, O’Neal in particular.

Said O’Neal, resorting to the commonly heard four-against-one defense: “He made the shots, but he got the whistle, too.”

The plea is especially anemic in someone so large and dominant.

The uniqueness of Yao extends beyond his 7-foot-5 self. The NBA has had several players who could stretch that far, although none with Yao’s skill level.

Yao has the soft shooting touch of Rik Smits, with range up to 20 feet, and a willingness to perform the grunt work. Unlike Smits, Yao has a certain firmness to his bearing. He is not dislodged by an elbow to the back.

Yao is hardly the quickest or fleetest player, but his sense of timing is ever evolving. His is an economy of motions, to an understated degree. He does not stuff the ball through the cylinder to put on a show. He does it out of efficiency.

His next display of showmanship will be his first. The American proclivity to beat the chest apparently has not been exported to China yet.

Yao plays close to the floor and with a subtlety that baffles opponents. He rarely leaves anyone clutching at air. Instead, he is liable to fake one way, step another and fade from the defender as he releases his jumper. That is one of his favorite maneuvers, too difficult to contest.

Yao also sees the floor uncommonly well and resists a young player’s urge to force a shot or a pass. As a second-year player, just 23, Yao shows remarkable patience. He appears indifferent to his numbers and to the notion that the NBA could be his to claim one day.

Jeff Van Gundy, the first-year coach of the Rockets who is accustomed to a New Yorker’s style of tenacity, sometimes finds himself in a culturally induced vacuum. He knows not what lurks inside Yao. Where is the rage to be the best? Where is the strut?

Even so, Van Gundy has been wise enough to emphasize the importance of Yao to those inclined to shoot first and think later. This emphasis includes Steve Francis, the team’s original franchise player now adjusting to Yao’s increasing presence.

Yao has been voted to start ahead of O’Neal in Sunday’s All-Star Game, for whatever that is worth, considering the ballot-stuffing potential of 1.4billion Chinese. Unlike last year, however, Yao is exhibiting an unexpected worthiness.

He certainly has O’Neal’s attention, if he did not have it already.

“He’s a big guy and has a soft touch,” O’Neal said, merely warming up. “I don’t think he’ll ever be able to play me one-on-one, ever, ever, ever.”

That, no doubt, depends on how the rest of us define “ever, ever, ever.” O’Neal, increasingly hampered by this or that nagging injury, turns 32 next month. He is hardly near the end of his career, but he is passing the peak of his physical powers.

Yao, eight years younger, is an undetermined quality in part, with no obvious deficiencies that might hold him in check.

Look ahead three years, when Yao is 26 and O’Neal is coming up on 35, and the exchange between the two might have been completed.

O’Neal is not apt to relinquish his status easily, which Yao should take as a warning the next time the two meet.

The treat is all ours.

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