HOUSTON -- The math isn’t working for the Houston Rockets. Instead of finding components that add up to victories, they are divided into two styles: up-tempo perimeter and halfcourt low-post. Then there are the fractions. The Rockets are taking advantage of Yao Ming for perhaps a quarter of the time he’s available to play, which is only a half a game.
The result is an 0-3 record.
“We have a lot of problems still,” Yao said after the Rockets lost to the Nuggets, 107-94, on Saturday night. “Defense, offense, everything. Hopefully we can do over training camp again.”
That wry sense of humor even in dark moments is the one thing that hasn’t changed about Yao. After coming back from foot surgery that kept him out the entire 2009-10 season he is slower than his previous incarnation. Smaller opponents routinely get to rebounds before he can. The Rockets’ medical staff has placed him under 24-minutes-per-game restrictions. And his teammates no longer view him as a primary option.
That explains how reserve Chase Budinger could wind up with nearly as many field goal attempts (nine) in 18 ½ minutes as Yao (10) in 22 ½. It’s one of the reasons the Nuggets outscored the Rockets 35-25 in the fourth quarter. And it’s a critical issue the Rockets must resolve.
Right now they’re better as a perimeter-oriented team, taking advantage of quick point guard Aaron Brooks and prolific shooting guard Kevin Martin. But name a perimeter-oriented team that’s won a championship. This perimeter-oriented Rockets team hasn’t even won a game so far.
The Rockets did win 42 without a single minute from Yao last season, and Brooks flourished, averaging 19.6 points per game en route to winning the Most Improved Player award. Yao sounded a little guilty when he said, “They played without me one year, they played great. They played a totally different style.”
It still didn’t get them to the playoffs. And keep in mind, for all of the Rockets’ surprising ability to push the Lakers to seven games after Yao went down in the 2009 playoffs, the only road game they won in that series came with Yao on the court. If we are to take the Rockets seriously, they need to get serious about Yao.
“We sort of forgot about him in the second half,” Shane Battier said. “We need to understand how we need to work him when he is in the game.”
Eight of Yao’s 14 points came in the first half. The Rockets can go three or four possessions without hitting him in the low post. Sometimes when they do pass to him the intention is right but the method’s wrong. Rockets coach Rick Adelman doesn’t want them slowly dumping the ball in to him when he’s stationary. It allows the defense to set up around him. He wants the ball moving from one side of the court to the other, then finding Yao in motion.
It’s not that easy for the team to switch mindsets and go from launching quick, almost indefensible shots, to setting up for Yao. And it’s hard for his teammates to adjust to his presence with his playing time limited.
Yao said his foot has been “no problem” and that his routine of stretching and riding a stationary bicycle when he isn’t in the game allows him to stay loose and adjust quickly when he returns.
“It’s more difficult for coach, not for me,” Yao said.
How to divide those precious 24 minutes?
Adelman started him Saturday and played him the first 6:09. Yao played for a seven-minute stretch in the second quarter, than sat out at the beginning of the third, entering after 4 ½ minutes. Adelman chose to keep him out for the first 7 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter, gambling that the Rockets wouldn’t fall too far behind without him or his return wouldn’t be too disruptive. He lost.
You can tell Adelman’s already frustrated by constant questions about the minute-managing.
“I don’t have an answer for Yao’s minutes,” he said, cutting in before a reporter finished asking. “They tell me how many minutes he has to play. ... it’s only been two games. I’m trying to figure it out.
“I was trying to stay close and put him in at the end of the game. One thing, our guys, they’ve got to get used to the fact that he’s in the game and try to go to him and see what kind of presence he’d make at the other end.”
The Lakers’ Pau Gasol couldn’t help but notice the presence of the 7-foot-6 Yao on opening night.
“It’s not a guy like that in the entire world,” Gasol said.
He’s someone opponents have to account for, but the Rockets make it easier if he’s not playing and/or they’re not using him.
“I think playing only 24 minutes a game, he’s probably not going to be the first priority,” Denver coach George Karl said. “Maybe the third priority, something like that. They play with great speed. Their quickness and speed, they try to get it into every possession if they can. The Yao factor slows that down a little. I think Luis Scola’s a great secondary guy. He’s good with Yao, he’s good with Martin and Brooks.”
As if on cue, Scola had 28 points and 10 rebounds Saturday. So the Rockets do have him to serve as a bridge between their styles. But Brooks and Martin have the ball in their hands the most, and it’s still uncertain how they’ll adjust to having the big man back.
“I don’t know,” Brooks said. “I really don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t call it. I don’t know if there’s a problem or what’s going on right now. I don’t know.”
Doesn’t sound like the coach has any solutions either at the moment.
“One thing I’ve been struggling with, who’s going to be on the court when he’s on the court?” Adelman said. “We’re almost to the point where we’ve got to have certain people on the court with him to take advantage him. We’re a work in progress right now.”
The simple math has turned into complex calculus. The schedule won’t wait for them to figure it out.