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Francis scores career-high 44 in first Shaq-Yao contest

Posted: Saturday January 18, 2003 12:49 AM
Updated: Saturday January 18, 2003 4:20 PM
  Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming Shaquille O'Neal gets his shot rejected by Yao Ming. Each of his first four shots were blocked, three by Yao. AP

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.

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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.

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.

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