You had to feel sorry for the fans in the corner sections of the TD Banknorth Garden who had come expressly to cheer their man. There was a group with a Chinese flag. There was another group with a simple sign -- ''Yao." Another contingent had a long message written in Chinese attached to one of the walls just below the luxury box.
For the most part, however, Yao Ming's Boston groupies stayed in their seats and kept their signs and banners to themselves last night. While Yao (14 points, 10 rebounds) might have barely satisfied his Rotisserie Nation followers, he and his teammates were beaten like a drum, 102-82, by the Celtics. It was your basic blowout.
''The [real] margin of victory was much higher than the final score," Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy somberly noted. ''They took it easy on us."
And that is it for Yao in Boston in 2005-06. As the Revolution might say, wait till next year.
This is Year 4 for the man who, simply by virtue of his size and increasingly familiar face, may be the most recognizable sports figure on the planet. He's already had two books written about him, which is somewhat less than Winston Churchill, but two more than Raef LaFrentz, who dropped seven treys on the clueless Houston defense in the first half en route to a career-high-matching 32 points.
Yao is traveling without his interpreter after taking English classes over the summer. (He always understood English a lot better than he let on.) He still lives with his parents and is assured vast riches down the road by virtue of a contract extension he signed Sept. 1.
But it's too bad we didn't see Yao in better form, or his team, for that matter. Houston was horrible -- and Yao was very, very ordinary. Kareem Abdul-Blount outscored him (17-14) and had a 3-0 advantage in blocked shots. ''We were always behind," Yao said, correctly. The Rockets never held a lead and never got closer than 10 in the last 22 minutes 35 seconds.
Asked if this was a confidence-buster, Yao said, ''Yes. For tonight. It was really frustrating. But tomorrow is a new day."
And tomorrow the Rockets will be in Minnesota, followed by games in San Antonio (where they have lost 15 straight) and a homer the next night against the Pistons. New days don't automatically mean better days.
Yao's 14 points last night, as meager as they were, nonetheless continued his string of double-digit-scoring games to 49 in a row, dating to Jan. 18, 2005. If that seems trivial, consider that before this present run, he never had gone more than 23 straight games with 10 or more points. He entered last night's game averaging 20.2 points a game. The 14 he offered up represented his low of the season over six games.
In other words, if this is, indeed, going to be Yao's breakout year, we will not be able to say that it all started on a mild November evening in Boston. But that is not to insinuate it won't. The hoop world is waiting.
Yao impressed the Rockets with his offseason workouts, interrupted only by right ankle surgery in early June (to remove a bone spur) and the now-obligatory participation for the motherland -- this time in the Asian Games. Other than that, he pretty much was in the gym or workout room every day when most of the basketball world had been led to believe that was the last thing he needed to do after playing basketball, nonstop, for years.
''Yao has sold that very, very well, about fatigue being an issue," Van Gundy said. ''It's not. Yao is a great worker. He just wanted some free time, I think more mentally than physically, and no one should begrudge anybody that."
And who could argue that Yao, as much as anyone, needed the free time? During his rookie year, there was a virtual China Fest at every stop he made. His trusty interpreter and roommate, Colin Pine, was as familiar a face on the Houston sideline as Rudy Tomjanovich. Somehow, Yao made it through Year 1 (who will ever forget his pointless debut in Indiana?) to the point where he now, in Year 4 (he has had four double-doubles in the first six games).
The guy also goes to the post. In his career, he has missed a total of two games. (Tracy McGrady already has missed three games this season.) Van Gundy is working to get Yao more minutes (the big guy is still averaging only 30 per game) and to keep him out of foul trouble. Where once Yao was thought to be too passive, now, according to assistant coach Patrick Ewing, the team is working on Yao to avoid being overly retaliatory.
''We have to tell him at times to lay off and stay away from the stupid fouls," Ewing said.
Yao had five fouls and four turnovers in nearly 30 minutes of action. But, honestly, if you judged any Rocket by last night's game alone, Houston owner Les Alexander would be petitioning the league this morning to have 12 slots in the D-League. We know Yao can and will do much, much better. It's just a shame he chose to lay a brachiosaurus egg in his one and only visit to Boston.