Over 18 seasons, Malone has developed the persona of someone who gets his way. It's a mixture of knowledge and arrogance and talent and intimidation, and even though he's backed off to make this year's alliance work with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, he knows how to turn it on when need be. He did just that all night long in Game 4. Contributing 30 points and 13 rebounds was only the start. Who else would knock Bostjan Nachbar off his feet as he came down from a dunk, pretend to have done nothing wrong and not get fined by the league later? Who else would rage at the referee when Nachbar then fouled him while making a clean play to block his fastbreak layup attempt? Who else could evade the NBA fashion police -- who are not above making calls during the course of a game to have a uniform violation enforced -- to wear a jersey ripped in the second quarter the rest of the game?
So was there any doubt what he'd do when he saw Yao, saddled with five fouls, between him and the basket in overtime and the Lakers down by four and fading? You could practically see Karl twitch with excitement at the opportunity. I don't know if Malone also glanced to see which referee had the play, but I wouldn't put it past him. In any case, he quickly drove directly at Yao and muscled the ball up as if he had to fight through Yao's arms.
It didn't matter that Yao tried to pull his hands back and avoid touching Malone. The mistake he made was not anticipating what the Mailman had in mind and keeping his hands clear. Instead, referee David Jones thought he saw contact and blew the whistle for Yao's sixth and final foul and a momentum-turning three-point play. (Among NBA officials, Jones is one who never seems affected by time of game or situation. My guess is if crew chief Joey Crawford had been on the baseline for that play, it would have had to be a no-doubt foul for him to make the call.)
Malone, in short, has carved out a sense of entitlement that stretches league-wide. Yao needs to do the same. First, of course, he needs to establish one that encompasses his team.
It's coming, slowly. After the loss Maurice Taylor mentioned how the team can't afford to be without its "best player." And Yao acknowledged that his fouling out was "the turning point."
The next step, of course, is for all the Rockets to understand that their collective "turning point" will be when they fully utilize their "best player." Granted, in the regular rotation only Jim and Mark Jackson recognize the instant Yao has a mismatch or solid position, but too much has been made of the limited court vision of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. They're not the first scoring guards with an impaired sense of when to make an entry pass and how, but Yao could help them by being more demonstrative. Whether it was Kareem or Hakeem or Shaq, big dogs in the NBA don't get their bowl filled -- not properly, anyway -- without barking. Francis and Mobley miss, on average, a dozen chances a game to get Yao the ball deep in the paint or with a defender sealed, but I guarantee they'd be down to three or four if Yao let them know about it.
Instead of talking, though, Yao listens. It's an admirable trait and perfectly understandable for a good-natured, unselfish second-year player, but the adage of too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen applies to both broth and the growth of 7-foot-6 centers from China.
"His next big step is to stop listening as much," coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "He's got to have selective hearing. You can listen to your coaches and your teammates, but at some point you have to decide what you need to do and let the rest roll off your back. The more he listens, the slower his feet get."
Van Gundy is waiting for Yao to send him a message, as well. There will be a timeout with a game on the line and Van Gundy will feel a tap on the leg as he sits down in front of the team. The tap will come from Yao and he will say, or gesture, to give him the ball.
"That," Van Gundy said, "has never happened."
There are signs, though, that it's not far away. Yao's already gotten over his reluctance to shoot after missing several in a row, and his confidence in taking and making 18-foot jumpers off pick-and-pop plays is growing with each game. The 19-footer he hit in overtime in Game 4 to put the Rockets ahead by one was huge.
But developing the persona Malone has goes far beyond the ability and willingness to take and make big shots. Someone on the Rockets with Karl's moxie would've realized that Malone had a technical foul from the exchange with Nachbar and would've been agitating him in hopes of drawing a second or being so careful not to get a second he would've been strangely un-Karl-like.
Yao is learning how to speak his mind off the court when decorum isn't observed, as when someone forgot to turn their cell phone off in the postgame press conference and it rang. "You're not a rookie anymore," he said to the cellphone owner.
Yao, neither are you. An oncourt point of decorum: There's nothing impolite about a team's best player growling, "Gimme the damn ball."