If the Rockets are going to be World Champions in the next few years, they're going to need Yao Ming to be the dominating center many think he can be.
Sunday night, he was clearly that.
Yao destroyed Andrew DeClerq, popping off for a career-high 37 points as the Rockets roughed up the Magic 99-87 in Orlando.
The Rockets improved to 26-17 on the season and have won 10 of their last 13 games.
First, the Orlando Magic are the worst team in basketball. Yes, they are potentially dangerous because of the talent of Tracy McGrady (31 points), but there's a reason they call them the Tragic -- they are 12-33. Secondly, DeClerq is... well, Andrew DeClerq.
Keeping those two things in mind, Yao was Shaquille O'Neal-with-an-assassin-like-jumpshot in Orlando.
He wheeled, spun, turned and plowed his way for 37 points, shattering his career-high of 30 set against Dallas last season.
This wasn't one of those fake 37-point performances, the type you see the likes of Allen Iverson putting up. You know, shoot 42 times, make maybe 18.
No, not at all. Yao hit 15-23 shots and wasn't even needed in the fourth quarter. In fact by the end of the third, Yao was 14-21 for 35 points in just 28 minutes.
Most importantly, Yao is getting confident and aggressive. In the second quarter he spun past DeClerq, knocked him on his ass then threw down a nasty one-handed hammer dunk. In the third he took a hard foul from Zaza Pachulia and gave him a nasty glare.
If there was ever a question of who should be "The Man" on the Rockets, Yao answered it Sunday night.
And kudos to his teammates, who saw that he was getting single-coverage and kept going to him. Mark Jackson came off the bench and in 24 minutes he had 10 assists and no turnovers. He had a gorgeous behind-the-back pass to Maurice Taylor under the basket that Mo got fouled on.
As for the 10 dimes, that already ranks as the third highest player assist total by a Rocket in a game this season [see High Game Assist Totals by Rockets, 2003-2004, and considering how long Jackson has been out of action, how unfamiliar he is with the team and the amount of minutes he played, that's pretty insane.
Jackson is looking like a hell of a pickup.
Speaking of Mo, Taylor was very strong off the bench, hitting 8-13 shots for 20 points and 8 boards. Mo is starting to make a case for the "Sixth Man of the Year" award.
Props also to Kelvin Cato, who did a masterful job frustrating Juwan Howard all night. Howard went 4-14 from the floor for just 9 points.
Steve Francis was off tonight, missing 8 of his 11 shots in 38 minutes. 7 points, 4 assists and 3 boards were the totals. Cuttino Mobley added 12 points while Jim Jackson scored 11, 7 boards and 3 assists.
Again, this was the Magic so the win has to be kept in perspective, but this is the type of game the Rockets would lose last season, and Yao's punishment of the single-coverage was such a tremendous sight to behold.
Don't think for one minute though that Jeff Van Gundy's brother wasn't watching. He'll throw everyone and the kitchen sink at Yao tomorrow as the Rockets face the Heat, so his teammates better be ready to knock down the jumper.