This one hurts. Today’s CT scan showed that Yao Ming’s injury wasn’t a sprained ankle, as he and the Houston Rockets hoped. Instead, Yao has a hairline fracture in his left foot, the latest in a series of foot woes suffered by the 7′6″ behemoth. Yao will miss the remainder of the postseason, one that in the wake of this injury seems likely to end sooner rather than later.
Can the Rockets beat the Lakers without Yao? Some bit of hope can be found in the fact that the Rockets have actually been better in this postseason when Yao has been on the bench, outscoring opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions in these situations. In this series, Houston has been +14 against the Lakers in the 38 minutes Yao has spent on the bench.
However, that stat largely reflects the superiority of the Rockets’ bench in Games 1 and 2. Going up against the Lakers’ starting frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will make for a very different matchup for Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry. Presumably, Rick Adelman will move Luis Scola to center and start Landry alongside him. Hayes rounds out the three-player frontcourt, which will have to avoid foul trouble. The fourth big man would be. . .Brian Cook? Ron Artest in a small lineup? The combination of losing Yao and Dikembe Mutombo, the only other player on the Houston roster over 6′9″, severely taxes the Rockets’ depth up front.
Offensively, Artest becomes the focal point for Houston. He has to make good decisions and play under control. If that’s not the case, Adelman doesn’t have a whole lot of other options. Scola has had success in the post against Odom, and Landry has finished well out of pick-and-rolls. However, Aaron Brooks will find less room to operate offensively because the Lakers don’t have to worry about defending the post in the same way as with Yao in the lineup. We also might see a little bit more of Von Wafer because of his ability to create off the dribble.
Whatever margin for error the Rockets had in this series, it is now gone. They will have to play nearly perfectly for 48 minutes and avoid any offensive droughts along the lines of the third quarter of Game 3 in order to have a chance to take another game off the Lakers.
As disappointing as Yao’s injury is for Houston, I feel even worse for Yao himself. He played 77 games during the regular season, avoiding a major injury for the first time since the 2004-05 season, and seemed to have eluded the bad luck that has plagued him in the past–only for it to strike at the worst possible team. Because of Yao’s size, foot injuries may simply be part of his reality. That doesn’t make them any easier to take.