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Yao effective in first meeting with Shaq

1/18/2003

HOUSTON (AP) -- All it took was 3 minutes for Yao Ming to show
Shaquille O'Neal that this would be no mismatch.

Yao blocked O'Neal's first three shots, altered Kobe Bryant's
attempt at the end of regulation and dunked with 10.2 seconds left
for the biggest basket of the night as the Houston Rockets defeated
the Los Angeles Lakers 108-104 in overtime Friday night.

The game turned out to be worthy of all the hype it received for
being the first meeting ever between the 7-foot-6 rookie center
from China and the 7-foot, 360-pound three-time defending champion.

"He's a classy guy,'' O'Neal said of Yao. "I was looking
forward to playing him. He's a great player. It's another challenge
for me.''

O'Neal finished with the better statistical line -- 31 points, 13
rebounds and four assists to Yao's 10 points, 10 rebounds and six
blocks.

But it was the Rockets that walked off with a victory -- their
season-high fourth in a row -- while ending the Lakers' longest
winning streak of the season at five games.

"How should I put it: We beat the Lakers today, but Shaq is
still Shaq,'' Yao said. "He's like a truck.''

Steve Francis led the Rockets with a career-high 44 points, and
Cuttino Mobley added 29. Kobe Bryant shot just 5-for-21 and
finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for Los
Angeles.

Yao, 22 and eight years younger than O'Neal, made three of his
first four shots, missed his next seven -- all of them turnarounds
and fadeaways, and made his last one -- the dunk that gave Houston a
104-100 lead. Mobley made four foul shots the rest of the way to
help ice the win.

O'Neal scored the Lakers' first six points of overtime, all of
them with impressive power moves against Yao. The final one was a
dunk with 1:27 left that cut Houston's lead to 99-98.

O'Neal then committed a flagrant foul against Francis, and coach
Phil Jackson got a technical for arguing. The three free throws
made it 102-98.

"The unfortunate thing is it had to be decided by them,''
O'Neal said of the officials. "A whole bunch of people who paid a
lot of money had to see a game that was decided by someone who
doesn't make a lot of money. That's unfortunate.''

Yao was called for a foul trying to block Robert Horry's dunk
attempt with 33.6 seconds remaining, and the two free throws made
it a two-point game.

Francis then made the pass of the night, finding Yao alone to
the left of the basket for a dunk.

"Once I went up and saw Robert Horry and Shaq, I knew Yao had
to be open,'' Francis said. "It happened so slow to me, watching
the play, and I was so happy to see him dunk the ball.''

Yao and O'Neal exchanged handshakes and a brief hug as they
walked off the court.

Yao couldn't have asked for a better start, dominating the first
three minutes to the delight of a sellout crowd that included
former Rockets centers Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone sitting
courtside.

O'Neal got the ball on the Lakers' first possession, made a
crossover dribble move on the baseline and went up strong. Yao
blocked it, and O'Neal wound up laying flat on his back.

"At the beginning of the game I think I was trying too hard.
He's 7-5, he's supposed to block shots. Everybody gets their shot
blocked,'' O'Neal said.

The Rockets got the ball to their big guy deep in the low post,
and Yao scored on a jump hook just 24 seconds into the game. After
Yao missed his second shot, he blocked yet another dunk by O'Neal
and then beat him downcourt for a layup.

Yao scored on a turnaround over Shaq with 9:27 left in the
first, but his next field goal did not come until 4:22 remained in
the fourth quarter as he expended most of his energy defending
O'Neal.

"It wore me out,'' Yao said through his interpreter. "I don't
know how to describe it because I've never encountered somebody
that strong before.''

Bryant made two free throws with 1:03 left before Francis tied
it with a driving layup. A jumper by Bryant was followed by a
Rockets turnover on a disputed out-of-bounds call, and Bryant made
just one of two from the line with 18.8 seconds left to leave the
Lakers ahead by three, 92-89.

Francis then took a pass from Yao, dribbled once to his left and
hit a straightaway 3-pointer to tie it with 13.4 seconds left.

Bryant drove around Mobley for the final shot of regulation, but
James Posey and Yao were there to force Bryant into a bad shot that
missed everything, sending the game to overtime.

Prior to the opening tip, O'Neal walked up to Yao and said
something into his ear, drawing a smile and a nod from Yao. The
Rockets usually have Eddie Griffin jump for the opening tip, but
this time Francis motioned to Yao that be should do the honors
against O'Neal.

Referee Dick Bavetta tossed the ball up, and O'Neal won the tip.
But the next three minutes were all Yao's.

Game notes
Francis' previous career-high was 39. ... Yao banged his
left index finger knuckle midway through the first quarter, but it
did not cause him to miss any time. ... Rockets F Eddie Griffin
went down with a mild neck sprain late in the first quarter but
returned to the game shortly thereafter. ... Rockets F Maurice
Taylor returned after missing three games with Achilles tendon
soreness.