Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Yao takes center stage in Houston's new stadium

AFP , HOUSTON, TEXAS

Yao Ming gave Jeff Van Gundy the production he wanted, although the Houston Rockets' first-year coach probably wants his center to stay on the floor longer.

Yao scored 19 points in a foul-plagued 20 minutes as the Rockets cruised to a 102-85 victory over the poor-shooting Denver Nuggets in Van Gundy's debut with the team.

It was a special night for the Rockets as Van Gundy became the 10th coach in team history in the first game at the US$202 million Toyota Center.

The former New York Knicks coach has made it a mandate for the offense to focus on Yao over Steve Francis, and the Chinese center responded with 15 points in the first half before foul trouble slowed him over the final 24 minutes.

"I thought I played pretty good, but I got into foul trouble and I know I can play better," Yao said. "I just had way too many fouls and I would have liked to play more."

"When you look at the fouls, some are going to be 50-50 type calls and there are others that we can help him avoid," Van Gundy said. "We need to get guys in front of him keeping the ball out of the lane so he is not in a vulnerable position."

Cuttino Mobley led Houston with 21 points and Francis added 17 and six assists. The Rockets took control with a 13-5 spurt to start the second half, capped by Mobley's dunk off a feed from Francis for a 61-47 bulge with 7:28 remaining in the third quarter.

Francis also finished with six assists, adjusting to his role as more of a distributor than a scorer as Houston moves away from its free-wheeling style. Francis and Van Gundy were rumored to have clashed during training camp about the team's new offense.

"There wasn't a whole lot of guys trying to do a lot of things on their own," Francis said. "We got into sets, moved the ball around well and everybody got their shots. This year we know it's not about anyone getting a certain amount of points -- it's about wins and losses."

The Nuggets missed their first seven shots of the second half and also endured a drought of more than six minutes in the fourth quarter. Denver shot just over 31 percent (11-of-35) after halftime.

Yao, who had three blocks, and Kelvin Cato helped anchor a strong defensive effort by Houston. Yao provided the signature moment of the game when he rejected Anthony twice in one sequence in the first quarter.

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