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Yao solid in guiding Houston in opener

HOUSTON – The Great Wall of China stayed tall and allowed the Rockets to struggle painfully in their 2007 playoff opener.

  Yet time after time, when push came shove, Utah clearly lacked enough answers for Yao Ming on Saturday night in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference first-round series.

  Yao’s supporting cast awakened from its early slumber and the Rockets rallied from eight-point hole midway in the third quarter to roll past Utah 84-75 in a game that may provide Houston quite a confidence boost in this best-of-seven series.

   Why a confidence boost, you ask? It easily could boost their confidence because the favored Rockets clearly frustrated their noisy Toyota Center sellout of 18,195 with a start that provided a nine-point halftime deficit and very little encouragement. His one-point first half renewed the questions about McGrady, who never has played on a winning team in a playoff series throughout his celebrated 10-year pro career.

   Yet the game completely turned toward Houston as the Rockets outscored Utah in the pivotal third quarter, 26-11, including a 10-0 run in the final 2:42 of the third quarter.

   Fairly consistent all night, especially at the free-throw line, Yao led all scorers with 28 while T-Mac bounced back with a 22-point second half for a 23-point outing. Utah’s best replies were offered by its backcourt duo of Derek Fisher and Deron Williams with 15 points apiece.

   “It was a hard-fought game,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “They worked us over on the boards (Utah led in rebounds 48-46) and yet we defended the free throw pretty well.”

   Van Gundy was smirking as he made that last remark but Utah’s 9 of 17 free throws really was significant. The Jazz made only 7 of 13 in the second half as their lead vanished.

   Van Gundy’s counterpart also cited his team’s inability to make shots in the second half.

   “We just missed shots,” Utah veteran coach Jerry Sloan said. “We got some good looks and we couldn’t make them. I thought we executed all night offensively. They’re a great defensive team.”

   McGrady was nervous. He admitted and Van Gundy did too. The Rockets’ main perimeter threat had to give himself a halftime pep talk after going 0 for 6 from the field in the opening half.

   “I told myself at halftime to calm down,” Tracy said. “I had to take a couple of deep breaths and gather myself together because I was on a high. Even before the game, coming to the arena, I’m sitting in the car and my palms were sweating and I just calmed myself down in the second half. I came out more relaxed in the second half and we got it rolling.”

   Yao led all scorers and rebounders and believed the Rockets’ intensity picked up in the second half.

   “I think our defense pushed them out more and we got some fastbreak points,” Yao said. “The more they (the Jazz) can attack the paint, the more everything will be going to their side.”

  The Jazz outplayed Houston in nearly every possible way during the first half. The Rockets would have been completely off the launching pad after 24 minutes without a solid half from Yao. The Rockets’ 7-6 center collected 15 first-half points and nine rebounds but lacked any support whatsoever as the hosts trailed 42-33.

  It’s not that Utah performed flawlessly with 43.2 percent shooting and 27 boards. The Jazz made only 2 of 7 three-point shots in the half, but at least the visitors took plenty of layups. The Deron Williams-Derek Fisher backcourt outscored the Rockets guards, Rafer Alston and McGrady 16-7 in the first two quarters.

  The Rockets’ leading scorer down the stretch, McGrady was a miserable 0 for 6 in the opening half with only one point. It was clear that the 6-8 shooting guard felt the pressure of trying to lead his team to the first successful playoff series in his career.

  While Van Gundy sat McGrady down during a second-quarter segment, it was clear even that Houston seemed frustrated by Utah’s tight guarding because they lacked any offensive punch to complement Yao. They finished the half with sub-frigid 29.4 percent field-goal shooting.

  The Rockets turned the verdict in their favor during the first three minutes of the second half, pulling within three points (44-41, Utah) and finally getting McGrady out of his early funk. McGrady’s 16 third-quarter points helped Houston to finally regain a 59-53 edge after three periods. A 10-0 surge with balanced scoring actually reversed Utah’s 53-49 advantage in Houston’s favor.

  That late surge contained Shane Battier’s three-pointer from the right corner, Yao’s dunk and Tracy’s pump-fake three-point jumper keyed the run

  By the start of the fourth quarter, the Rockets claimed the upper hand in shooting ratios, 39.6 to Utah’s 34.8. Deron Williams converted Utah’s final third-quarter points on a short jumper at the 2:42 mark. The Jazz shot a woeful 4 of 22 from the field in the third quarter.