Yao Ming's retirement: Yao had memorable moments vs. Lakers
Whether it was putting up a statistically perfect game, absorbing Shaquille O'Neal's barbs, becoming the victim of Kobe Bryant's dunks or leading the Rockets to an upset playoff victory, Yao Ming's nine-year career also entails some memorable performances against the Lakers.
On the heels of Yao announcing his retirement before a jam-packed crowd in China, here's a look at some of those special moments.
Yao's statistically perfect night
For the first four games of his career, Yao was considered a laughingstock and the product of manufactured hype. After the Houston Rockets selected him with their first pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the 7-foot, 6-inch center averaged only 14 minutes and four points, leading many to wonder if he was nothing more than a ploy to build the NBA's brand in China.
Yao proved in the eighth game of his career and first against the Lakers that he was going to be much more than that. In the Lakers' 93-89 victory on Nov. 17, 2002, Yao turned in a statistically perfect game, scoring 20 points on nine-of-nine shooting and grabbing six rebounds in 23 minutes.
Sure, some of the attention focused on O'Neal's absence as he recovered from off-season surgery on his arthritic right big toe. It was also hard to ignore Bryant's 46-point performance, though he missed a wide open shot with 10 seconds left that could've given the Lakers the lead. But Yao, who told reporters he was inspired by the numerous championship banners hanging in Staples Center, surely made a statement.
"I guess it's luck,'' Yao said through an interpreter when asked about making every shot he took -- nine field goals and two free throws. "For me, it's definitely a breakthrough.''
That included many key plays, such as making six field goals to close the Lakers' lead to 43-42 at halftime and converting a three-point play in the final minute of the game. Shaq, who had always been skeptical of opposing centers, even sang his praises for Yao.
"Congratulations to Mr. Ming, first of all," Shaq told reporters. "He's done a lot for his country. He has all the tools -- shoot, dribble. He can play, he's no slouch.''
Yao's first meeting with Shaq
Moments before the opening tip, Shaq whispered something in Yao's ears to make him smile. But the possible approach in trying to soften Yao up didn't work. In the Lakers' 108-104 loss Jan. 17, 2003 to the Rockets, Yao proved in the first three minutes of the game that Shaq wouldn't just impose his will on the young center.
Sure, Shaq ended the night with 31 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, a far better showing than Yao's 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. But the game still turned out to be worthy of the hype surrounding the first meeting between the rookie center from China and the 7-foot, 360-pound, three-time defending champion. Yao made three of his first four shots and had a signature dunk that gave the Rockets a 104-100 lead late in the fourth quarter. When O'Neal got the ball on the Lakers' first possession, he made a crossover dribble move on the baseline and went up strong. But Yao blocked it, resulting in O'Neal laying flat on his back.
"At the beginning of the game I think I was trying too hard," O'Neal told reporters. "He's 7-5, he's supposed to block shots. Everybody gets their shot blocked."
O'Neal's patience paid off. Yao missed seven consecutive shots at one point, all of them turnarounds and fadeaways. O'Neal then scored the Lakers' first six points of overtime, all of them with impressive power moves against Yao.
"How should I put it: We beat the Lakers today, but Shaq is still Shaq,'' Yao told reports. "He's like a truck.''
O'Neal mocks Yao
In a statement that offended many in the Chinese community, Shaq mocked Yao saying in a fake Chinese accent, "Tell Yao Ming, 'ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh." All parties, ranging from Shaq, Phil Jackson and even Yao himself, insisted that Shaq was just joking and didn't mean to offend anyone. Still, Yao acknowledged that Shaq should've used better judgement.
"There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other," Yao told reporters. "Especially two very large countries. The world is getting smaller and I think it's important to have a greater understanding of other cultures. I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking, but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke.
Yao then added with a joke: "Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little."
O'Neal has statement game in second matchup
Afterward, O'Neal denied he had wanted to send any type of message, but his on-court play said it all. In the Lakers' 96-93 victory March 23, 2003, O'Neal dropped 39 points and scored three consecutive baskets in the final minutes. That included dunking right over Yao for a 94-91 lead with 19 seconds left.
"I don't have to make statements," O'Neal told reporters. "Everybody knows the type of player I am. I've been doing this for 10 years and just because he had one good game against me doesn't mean he had the MDE (most dominant ever) title. I took that title from Hakeem [Olajuwon] when he left Houston a couple of years ago."
Bryant makes go-ahead jumper over Yao
For once, not everything surrounded how Yao and Shaq squared up. The Lakers' 96-93 win March 3, 2004 against the Rockets featured Bryant calmly sinking a go-ahead jumper over Yao with 32 seconds left as the Lakers rallied from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit.
"It was a big shot (Bryant), this was a game we should have gotten," Yao told reporters after posting 33 points and eight rebounds. "We had a double-digit lead and they were able to close it. They just made a few less mistakes, but I didn't think we made a lot of mistakes."
Shaq dominated Yao again
This time, there was no debate on who won the matchup. The Lakers' 93-85 victory April, 1 2004 against the Rockets featured O'Neal posting 18 points and eight rebounds while holding Yao to six points on three-of-15 shooting. That effort included Shaq muscling Yao for a dunk and pressuring him into missing a close-range shot.
"He put a lot of pressure on me at the beginning of the game," Yao told reporters through an interpreter. "He didn't give me a lot of space to adjust my shot, so I think he had a big effect. But in the latter part of the game he came off me and I just couldn't put the ball in the hole. You're always going to have bad games, and I just didn't play well tonight."
"I just kind of stayed with him, put a body on him," O'Neal said of Yao. "He just missed some shots. I tried to keep him out of the middle of the floor and shoot jumpers."
Yao secures victory with free throws
The Lakers surely could've used Bryant's clutchness. But Bryant had remained sidelined because of a severely sprained ankle. So Yao became the closer instead en route to the Lakers' 103-102 loss Feb. 6, 2005, rebounding Lamar Odom's late-game miss making the game-winning free throws with 15.2 seconds remaining.
"I knew I could make that because I had missed too many before," Yao told reporters, although he had gone five-of-six from the line en route to 23 points."It's great to get the win."
Bryant dunks on Yao and blocks him too
It didn't just happen in the video above. Everywhere you look, you can see Bryant throwing Yao off balance in the lane and even blocking several of of Yao's shots. But nothing surely beats the play above where Bryant drove the lane and absolutely posterized the seven-footer.
Bryant breaks Elgin Baylor's record
Anytime Bryant reaches a milestone, it often entails him shooting his way into the history books. In the Lakers' 104-88 victory April 3, 2006, Bryant tied Elgin Baylor for the franchise record for the most 40-plus-point games in a single season with 23. Bryant's 43 points on 19 of 32 shooting resembled that of a hot shooter playing a game of H-O-R-S-E. Whether it was his three-of-five mark from three-point range or his 17 jumpers, Bryant wouldn't allow Houston's tendency to rotate defenders to stop him in the lane deter him from dropping the ball in the basket. So instead, Bryant made the Rockets pay with 22 third-quarter points alone.
"I just wanted to come out and provide some energy and my shot started falling and it turned into a lot of momentum for us that Houston couldn't really hold onto," Bryant told reports. "We wound up breaking the game open."
Bryant drops 53 on the Rockets
A 21 points deficit and 13 total turnovers wouldn't deter the Lakers from leading a comeback charge. It sure helps when Bryant's on the team. In the Lakers' 112-101 double-overtime victory Dec. 15, 2006, Bryant scored 53 points, made 14 of 16 free throws, grabbed 10 rebounds and added eight assists, resulting in his 13th career game where he scored at least 50 points. Only Bryant could upstage Yao, who led the Rockets with 35 points, 15 rebounds and a career-high eight blocked shots.
"I don't know about if he imposed his will," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said at the time about Bryant. "He imposed his skill, I know that."
Yao helps Rockets deliver Game 1 upset
Sitting there grimacing in pain, Yao clutched his knee and appeared he wouldn't be able to stay on the court. After Bryant and Yao collided knees, he soon limped off of the court, appearing as if he'd have to see if his teammates could muster a Game 1 upset in the 2009 Western Conference semifinals against the Lakers. But toward the entrance tunnel leading into a Staples Center halllway, Yao stretched out his leg and then returned to the court minutes later.
When Yao returned, he scored eight of his 28 points en route to a 100-92 Game 1 upset. Yao deadpanned, "You know how the NBA says, 'Where Amazing Happens.'" And clearly the Rockets were amazed because Yao didn't even make it to the trainer's room before returning.
"I don't know what our trainer did to Yao," Rockets Coach Rick Adelman said at the time. "It was like Rocky coming back out there. We really needed him on the court."
Unfortunately for the Rockets, it was proved to be a bad omen. Yao was then diagnosed with a season-ending hairline fracture in his left foot, causing him to miss a series the Rockets grinded out to a total seven games before the Lakers finally put forth a full effort.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol tries to drive around Houston center Yao Ming at Staples Center. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / Oct. 26, 2010
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant flips a pass to a teammate after driving into the defense of Houston's Yao Ming and Courtney Lee in 2010-11 season opener. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / Oct. 26, 2010