Yao injury raises Rockets doubts anew

HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets pulled off the rare feat of winning the battle and losing the war on the same day, after their momentary lift when Ron Artest was spared a suspension for a flagrant foul in Game 3 was crushed under the weight of Yao Ming's tumbling out of the rest of the playoffs.

After finally making it out of the first round, Yao couldn't reach the end of the second. His season is over after medical examinations revealed a stress fracture in his left foot. It bothered him throughout Game 3 and he was limping visibly toward the end of the game, finally limping to the bench in the waning minutes.

Already trailing the Lakers two games to one in the best-of-seven conference semifinals, the Rockets can start booking their offseason plans. Yao's injury, following a season-ending injury to Dikembe Mutombo in the first round vs. Portland, leaves the Rockets literally short at center. The 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes will receive more minutes, and while he has been an effective defender against Lakers 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, Hayes has scored only two points in 34 minutes this series.

Yao scored 28 points when the Rockets won the first game, and even in his hobbled state he managed 19 points in Game 3. Without him, the Rockets aren't equipped to match the Lakers' scoring prowess.

The question going forward: How much can the Rockets count on him to be the focal point of this franchise, given his history of injuries? While his 77 regular-season games were his most since 2004-05, this makes back-to-back seasons in which he won't appear in the Rockets' final playoff game. He won't have surgery, but will take eight to 12 weeks to recover, which will affect his offseason conditioning program.

The biggest concern when the Rockets added Artest to their duo of Yao and Tracy McGrady was keeping all three on the court. McGrady barely reached the halfway pole before calling it quits to get knee surgery.

Artest, somewhat surprisingly, has turned out to be the most reliable of the group. He defied his track record of suspension to appear in 69 games, not missing any due to league punishment. He has been ejected from the past two playoff games, receiving a technical foul for confronting Kobe Bryant in Game 2 and a flagrant 2 penalty for a foul on Gasol in Game 3. But even the Lakers thought those ejections were too harsh; the NBA agreed on the second one, downgrading it to a flagrant 1 and allowing him to appear in Game 4.

The Rockets prepared in Saturday's practice as if Yao wouldn't be available. They already had a test run in Game 2, when he missed almost half the game due to foul trouble, and in the second quarter, Houston overcame the Lakers' double-digit lead without Yao.

But asking the Rockets to win three of the next four without Yao? That's simply too much.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.