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When Yao Ming limped off, it was impossible not to think the worst, having seen it so many times before.

Soon, the word came that he might return to the game so clearly, the injury could not be that serious. Even if that was something of wishful thinking, it was not just for public consumption. Rick Adelman had been told that Yao was going to get re-taped, indicating he thought until halftime that Yao might be back.

At halftime, Daryl Morey and Leslie Alexander chatted courtside, and when I asked if Yao’s injury was in the part of the foot that had the stress fractures and surgery, Morey said he would not be sitting there answering my stupid question (OK, he didn’t call it stupid) if there injury was there.

It wasn’t. Yao said it was his ankle, away from the part of the foot that has given him so much trouble.

Yao, however, made it clear that he and the Rockets won’t really know anything about his condition until tests tomorrow. He did not seem optimistic.

That could just be because he had watched the Rockets collect their worst loss of the many already this season, falling to 1-6 with a 98-91 defeat to the thoroughly mediocre Washington Wizards.

As familiar as Yao’s departure seemed, so did everything that followed.

The Rockets failed to get back defensively in the first half, played weak interior defense through much of the game, failed to lock up the defensive boards when they had to and most of all collapsed down the stretch with the game on the line.

After taking their last lead midway through the fourth quarter, they gave up a 10-0 run in which they missed all four of their shots, had five turnovers and surrendered three offensive boards with the Wizards scoring on them all.

That’s how you lose to the Wizards, and not terribly different from how they lost to the Lakers, Warriors, Nuggets and Hornets.

“You get paid to make plays,” Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. “Our guys, we got to make plays. With the game on the line, you have to find people who can do that. Right now, we’re searching for it. It’s not happening.”

Yao of course could be the Rockets’ closer, at least on the offensive end. He didn’t look like it on Wednesday. He did not take one shot in his six minutes. But he has that ability.

Now, the Rockets don’t know if they have him.

They won without him last year, but don’t know how to win this season.

Most NBA games are close in the fourth quarter. That’s when teams are defined and revealed, and the Rockets have been exposed. They are 1-6 for a reason and it’s not because Yao Ming limped off in the first quarter. That just made the latest loss hurt just a bit more.

Posted by Jonathan Feigen at November 10, 2010 10:27 PM