Updated: March 22, 2006, 3:08 AM ET

A whole smother story for Yao

DALLAS -- One thing I'll always respect about Yao Ming, no matter how he's playing:

He makes himself available to media gnats like me six times every gameday.

He takes questions after the morning shootaround. He takes questions again about an hour before the opening tip. Then he takes them post-game.

First in English, then in Mandarin. Every single time.

It means that Yao, especially now, sees a swarm every time he looks up. Tracy McGrady isn't around to take away defenders or reporters, which is why "my big fella" -- as T-Mac calls him -- was due for a night like Tuesday. No matter how hot he's been.

It came in Houston's sixth game since announcing that McGrady's ongoing back trouble will likely keep him shelved for the rest of the season and broke up the best individual stretch of Yao's career. After scoring at least 20 points in every outing since the All-Star break -- after averaging 28 a game in that 14-game span, to be precise -- Yao was smothered by a steady stream of double-teams from a Dallas club far more athletic and stingy than it was when it needed seven games to dismiss the Rockets in last spring's first round.

The result?

Without a single teammate to trouble the Mavericks from the perimeter or loosen them up otherwise, Yao was doubled on almost every catch and managed just 13 points to go with his 13 rebounds in the Rockets' 88-72 defeat. Even with Dallas missing rotation regulars Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Keith Van Horn and Adrian Griffin, Houston's shell of a squad was still badly outnumbered and fell to 2-19 sans McGrady.

It also didn't help that A) Yao had just toasted the Mavs for 36 points in Houston less than a week ago and B) that the hosts were able to craft their coverages for the rematch with serious input from Del Harris, who knows a bit about Yao's likes and dislikes after coaching him on the Chinese national team.

However . . .

Eager as I was to see the "new" and "aggressive" Yao up close, and as little as I saw of that guy, I couldn't come away too disappointed. You look at the players Houston is dressing these days and you're dreaming if you think the most swarm-able Rocket on the floor should automatically score 25-plus.

Plus he answered all my questions, before the game and after.

Which is always appreciated.

Asked about the playoff berth that's obviously slipping away, Yao says: "I'm trying not to think about that. It's really difficult for us right now, but we didn't give up yet."

Asked about the frustration that comes with trying to hack through all those double-teams with so little help from the short-handed crew around him, Yao says: "I knew that [defensive pressure] would be coming without Tracy. They should be focused on me."

Asked about the late December toe surgery that has clearly improved his mobility, Yao says: "[The pain was] getting worse every day and I [kept] making it worse because I don't want to miss games. It's a very good lesson for me. Anything painful, I have to tell the trainer and let them help me."

Asked about T-Mac and what he can do to help his pal deal with the mental strain of a lost season, Yao says: "Just like my toe, one day you have to [do what's best and] leave the court. He's been in this league longer than me. I think he knows what to do."

Asked about his five 30-point games this month and how satisfying it must be to start hearing praise from his many critics, Yao says: "I haven't heard anything, because I don't read a lot of English newspapers. . . . [The] only way I can get happy is when our team gets victory."

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: March 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18-19 | 20 | 21

Wolf Blitzers

Ann Heisenfelt/AP Photo
Miami did have the league's longest win streak, as mentioned below, but Ricky Davis and Kevin Garnett eventually helped Minnesota grab a 100-96 victory over the Shaq-less Heat.

Rank Comments

Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:

Patrick (Miami): Wow. Not much left to say except that you've reached a new low in terms of your hatred for the Heat. I'm looking at the [recent] win streak (five), the league's best record since the All-Star break (12-2), the biggest blowout in the NBA this season (against Utah) and the largest come-from-behind win in the NBA this season (against Boston). And Detroit just lost to New York, Phoenix just lost to Portland and Dallas has lost four games this month. Nice try, but at worst Miami is No. 2 behind the Spurs.

Chris (Hartford): I love the Pistons and all, but there's no way they should be No. 3 right now. Drop 'em. Miami is the best team in the East as we speak. And while Miami might be racking up wins against a bunch of sub-.500 teams, Detroit isn't even doing that. Since starting the season 39-6, they've gone 14-7. So much for 70 wins and so much for running away with home-court advantage.

Mike (Chandler): Everybody keeps saying that the Spurs own the Suns. But if we had Kurt Thomas and Brian Grant to guard Nazr Mohammed and Tim Duncan and keep them off the offensive boards, we would be seeing a different outcome.

And if we get Amare back, forget it -- we're going to annihilate this old and slow Spurs team. I think you're on target with your Power Rankings, but I'm just not buying your propaganda about the Spurs being the best in the West.

Matt (San Antonio): Once again, everyone in the NBA -- and by everyone I mean the media -- is kidding themselves into thinking that anyone other than the San Antonio Spurs will win the championship. It makes for good drama, I guess.

Has anyone noticed that the Spurs have their best record EVER for the franchise at this point in the season? And this is a team that has won three championships. And lest we forget, they are the defending champions. Has anyone noticed that they're doing this with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili at 80 percent?

When the playoffs come, that switch you guys used to talk about back in the glory days for the Lakers will be flipped for the Spurs -- and they'll be flipping the switch after winning 60-plus games. Scary, huh? The Pistons are good, don't get me wrong, but they still reside in the Eastern Conference and they'd be a third seed in the West if they faced the schedule that the Spurs and other Western Conference teams faced.

Simply put: San Antonio was the best team at the end of last season, the best team at the beginning of this season and will be back-to-back champions at the end of this season. But we'll let you have your drama and believe that other teams have a chance come playoff time. By the way, did anyone notice that Nazr Mohammed had 30 points and 16 rebounds against another so-called title contender the other night? That's depth. That's a team. That's reality. Whether you like it or not, the Spurs will win the title this season.

Vincent (Miami): Seriously, what will it take for you to promote Miami even one spot? And why is it that the rankings on nba.com are almost always different than yours? I guess you guys are smarter than everyone else.

Ed's note: At long last, someone from Miami gets me.

Slams And Dunks

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy acknowledged Tuesday night that he has reached out to Latrell Sprewell to see if he could tempt his old Knicks favorite into a comeback with a team that has no salary-cap means to offer more than minimum wage.

It's an offensively-challenged team that could arguably have used Sprewell as a No. 3 option when Tracy McGrady was healthy . . . and thus a squad that, if it's still clinging to playoff fantasies, could certainly find some shots for him now with McGrady lost for the season and the No. 8 spot in the West 5 1/2 games out of reach.

"I did call," Van Gundy said.

Without getting a return call.

"Which means," Van Gundy quickly added, "that he's not interested."

The Rockets actually could have created a salary slot worth closer to $2 million if they had applied for an injury exception on Bobby Sura, who hasn't played all season after back and knee surgeries.

But it's been clear for months that Spree, 35, wants something closer to the $5 million mid-level exception level -- and a contract that doesn't expire at season's end -- to feed his family with NBA wages again. The Clippers' Sam Cassell has also tried (more than once) to lure his former Minnesota teammate out of hibernation, but the Clips are also prevented from offering more than a million (and change) because of their cap limitations.

Because he hasn't played for anyone since last season, Sprewell is still eligible for the playoff roster of any club he choses, even if he doesn't sign until the final day of the regular season April 19. So it's still too early to completely rule out a Spree sighting in '05-06.

His ex-coach, though, will not be shocked if Spree never plays another NBA game.

"Nope," he said. "I think he goes to the beat of his own drummer. He felt it was an injustice if he had to take the veteran's minimum and I think he's very content in his life. I think that attitude allowed him to play effectively even when his career could have gone to pieces.

"He's very, very bright. And he's always had a lot going on in his life. So I'm not surprised."

What about saddened not to see him somewhere?

"It's not sad if he's not sad," Van Gundy said. "If he's not bitter about things and if he's happy with how his career turned out -- and he should be -- then I'm happy for him."

I didn't publish my Final Four picks before last Thursday because I figured you all knew them. But since some of you have asked . . . Detroit, Miami, San Antonio and Phoenix.

Fourth And Final

The Mavs completed a sweep of the season series with the Rockets with a 88-72 win. None of the four games were closer than nine points.

Holding Down Yao

Calling On The Butler

AP Photo/Bill Haber
Hornets forward Rasual Butler was cut off here by Quinton Ross and Chris Kaman of the Clippers, but still had a career-high 32 points in New Orleans' 120-108 win.

Extreme Behavior

Tuesday's Best
Hornets F Rasual Butler: His team was 0-7 in March, playing its third and final game in New Orleans and desperate for some perimeter offense. Butler's response? Seven triples in eight attempts for 32 points in what coach Byron Scott dubbed "the game of his life."

Tuesday's Worst
Indiana's effort: The Pacers followed up a home loss to Boston with a no-show in Memphis that suggests Jermaine O'Neal can't come back soon enough. Grizzlies 105, Pacers 75.


Quote of the Day
"I apologized to him like 100 times already. . . . Hopefully it's minor because I would hate for me to be the one to hurt his career or anything like that."
-- Rookie guard Nate Robinson, after fellow rookie Channing Frye -- in the latest Knicks calamity -- suffered a knee injury when Robinson appeared to knock Toronto's Andre Barrett into the prized big man.

See how all 194 who played stacked up

The current NBA Playoff matchups

Stock Report

A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:

Highest Rise: No. 15 Milwaukee Bucks
You can't quite call it a turnaround, since none of the victims in Milwaukee's 5-2 uptick is less than nine games under .500, but the Bucks were desperate for anything close to a revival after falling two games under .500 (29-31) for the first time all season. To score this four-spot jump, first Milwaukee escaped with an 88-87 victory over Atlanta . . . after blowing a 17-point lead. The Bucks then routed Chicago two nights later in a game that the East's No. 9 team needed just as badly in its less-than-convincing bid to snatch the final playoff berth.

Steepest Fall: No. 25 Atlanta Hawks
The biggest drop in the latest edition of the rankings is only a three-spot fall and three teams shared it: Indiana, Sacramento and Atlanta. And I had plenty of motivation to put the Pacers here, with Stein Line favorite Sarunas Jasikevicius suddenly banished from Rick Carlisle's rotation. Yet I go with the Hawks because of where they are in the rankings compared to the Pacers and Kings. With the help of an OT loss to the Knicks in the heart of the Larry Brown vs. Stephon Marbury war of words, Atlanta has slipped to its lowest position in five weeks.

Marc Stein's Complete Power Rankings

One On One . . . To Five

Five questions with Raptors guard Mike James:

Q: You don't hit the open market for almost four months, but you're already generating some free-agent buzz. After six teams in five seasons, how pleasing is that?

A: You try not to think about it, because I know if I don't play well, there won't be any noise. But there's probably been more talk about me as a Raptor than anywhere I've been, even though we're out of the [playoff] loop. I thought I would be doing this for Houston. But Toronto has given me an opportunity to showcase what type of player I am and what type of person I am.

Q: You didn't hide your disappointment when the Rockets traded you to the Raptors on the first day of training camp. Did you have a negative perception of Toronto?

A: Definitely. But I didn't know. I was going off what other people said. People would look at Toronto and talk about taxes or talk about having to carry around your passport, these types of things. But I tried to keep an open mind [after the trade] and once I got around the city a little bit, I realized it's not like people say. And the best thing about it was the opportunity that I got from the coaching staff. That made it much easier.

Q: It's been a rough season for the Raptors, obviously, but it's also your breakout season. So is re-signing in Toronto your first choice now?

A: They've given me my opportunity, so I would be wrong not to talk to them first. I would be wrong to just turn my back on them, and I'm not going to do that. My thing is, "Can I make this place a home?" Am I going to be recognized and rewarded [financially] for what I'm doing now? I'm tired of having past held against me. I'm tired of hearing about how I [went] undrafted. That was a long time ago. I'm not a journeyman anymore.

Q: Have you gotten over the Houston trade?

A: It hurt. It definitely hurt, because I felt like Houston was a place I could spend my whole career. I felt like Houston was a place I could build my foundation. My wife is from Houston. I'm building a house in Houston. And Houston is still going to be my home in the off-season. So [getting traded] was the biggest slap in the face to me.

Q: What's your gut feel: Will Toronto be able to keep Chris Bosh?

A: I think so, yes. Chris wants me to stay and I want him to stay. We've got something good going. He's going to have to evaluate what's best for him and his family, but they love Chris Bosh in Toronto.

Chat Excerpt

Brett (Miami): I just have one question: Why do you, along with dozens of other reporters, continue to criticize the Heat? Did you really expect them to start off 50-10? I mean, we all knew this team was going to take some time to get its chemistry together.

With Shaq out for the first month of the season, that process became a lot more difficult. Stan Van Gundy could not handle this team with all its proven veterans, so obviously Pat Riley had to step in, and he's done a fabulous job. All I'm saying is, the Heat are hotter than South Beach right now.

People need to stop comparing them to the Pistons, because not even God could have predicted Detroit's start. At this moment, Miami is better than the Pistons and maybe better than anyone in the entire league. After all, Detroit lost to the Knicks a couple days ago.

Stein: Have I really been "criticizing" them lately? Dare I say no. I'm simply not slobbering over them like some of my friends in Miami expect just because they're beating a bunch of saps now. I invite you to comb through the list of games Miami has played since the big Detroit win and tell me which performances have been so impressive. Apart from that mauling of Utah, I see the same Heat we've seen all year . . . Wade aside. He's been awesome, but it's hard to be wowed the group when they're falling way behind Atlanta, Charlotte and Boston and scrambling back to win by a point or two. Sorry. That's just me.

Maybe Shaq knows exactly what he's doing. Maybe the time he missed in the beginning of the season will leave enough in his tank to take up it a couple notches in the playoffs. Maybe these guys are going to click at the right time and morph into a playoff force. I don't dispute -- and haven't disputed since Indy's season unraveled -- that Miami is the only team in the East capable of giving Detroit a real series.

But I don't believe that anything has changed dramatically in the last month just because Miami is pounding a bunch of sorry teams with nothing to play for. Shaq has a Turn It On In The Playoffs mentality and the rest of the team (Wade and Riles aside) has followed his lead. If it works, they look like geniuses. If not, it reinforces what I've said since the summertime -- minor tweaking to a team that was already close was a better option than a total overhaul. Especially an overhaul this ambitious.

See the full Marc Stein chat transcript Insider



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