Amid yearlong criticism that he had taken a step back in his development, Yao Ming had his finest performance of the season last Friday, piling up 27 points and 22 rebounds in the Rockets' 127--107 win at Phoenix. In a potential first-round playoff preview, the Suns suffered their worst home court loss, with the 7'6" Yao swatting five Amare Stoudemire shots. A sign of things to come? "I've got a sense that it will be," said Tracy McGrady, whose 38 points helped cap a week that began with wins over the Mavericks and Sonics. "There was nothing soft about Yao, nothing at all."
While confidence and conditioning have been troublesome issues in Yao's third NBA season, he is quietly learning to play his best in the biggest moments. He led Houston on a 41--17 fourth-quarter surge with 14 points and 10 boards, and at week's end he was shooting 59.5% in fourth quarters. "People talk about [Yao not] being tough and mean and all those stupid-ass things," says Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "But being good in this league is also about being mentally tough and poised, and Yao is all of that."
Among centers, Yao's 18.5 points per game through Sunday ranked third to Stoudemire's 26.1 and Shaquille O'Neal's 22.5, and he was third in the league in shooting (55.1%) and 10th in blocks (1.93). Foul trouble had limited him to 31.3 minutes per game, a 1.5-minute drop from last year. Instead of benching him, Van Gundy has recently kept Yao on the floor to force him to play through early fouls. Yao admits he must continue to grow stronger to earn the referees' respect and to prevent smaller, quicker players from openly pushing him out of the block. "Those fouls are because of the conditioning," he says, speaking English without an interpreter. "You are late probably a half step and cannot get good positioning, and now the call is on you."
Yao is 24 and works hard, so why isn't he in better shape? The obvious answer is that his body isn't given time to recover. Dream Teamers complain of fatigue after representing their country at one Olympics; Yao has spent every off-season playing for China, while missing only one NBA game in the last three years. He is trying to persuade Chinese officials to let him have at least two months this summer so that he can not only rest up but also put in the private workouts that help transform All-Stars into Hall of Famers. "I like to play for the national team," says Yao. "It's a huge honor. But I just say that some [summer] games are not really important--they do not need all of the national team players to play in those games."
The Rockets are still under construction, as G.M. Carroll Dawson's four midseason trades suggest, and Yao is still years from peaking. But the league's tallest star indicated his tantalizing potential on Friday when he dived into the corner for a loose ball, sat upright and bounced a pass behind his back that led to an easy basket. Few centers would have hit the deck, and no one else could have handled the ball so deftly--showing why Van Gundy bristles when critics say that neither Yao nor McGrady is vocal enough to lead Houston to a title.
"A lot of guys are great quotes but poor leaders," Van Gundy says. "The biggest thing is going to be these two guys figuring out how they can play inspired basketball to inspire their teammates to win big. Neither of them has figured it out entirely yet. But when they play hard, practice hard and deliver in the fourth quarter, that's inspirational."