In his first matchup against Yao on Jan. 17, O'Neal had his problems early in the game. He had a couple of his shots blocked while the Chinese rookie sensation made a couple of baskets over the three-time NBA Finals MVP.
Although O'Neal got the better of the boxscore, the Rockets won in overtime as Yao provided the clinching dunk in the closing seconds. This time, O'Neal appeared intent on giving Yao a lesson.
The 7-2, 350-pound O'Neal wasted no time asserting himself, bulling his way past the 7-5 Yao for a couple of dunks in the first quarter. He eventually sent Yao to the bench with foul trouble.
"I played the same type of game (as last time)," O'Neal said. "Last time, I had 31 points and he had 10. It's just that we lost. Everybody talks about the three blocks that he had, but when you're 7-6, you're supposed to block those shots."
"He played a lot of minutes, and when he plays that many minutes, he's gonna score points," said Los Angeles Coach Phil Jackson. "He was definitely motivated tonight, no doubt about it. He's at that point in the season where it's the playoff drive."
In the third quarter, Yao tried to follow his own missed hook shot. His chin banged against the back of Rick Fox's head and both players went down. Yao stayed on the floor for a minute or so, holding his ears and his head, before leaving the court.
Yao returned, but maybe he should have stayed in the locker room. Working on Yao and Kelvin Cato, O'Neal scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, including three ferocious dunks. The last one came with 19 seconds left and gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead.
"I played my game, the same game I played against everyone," O'Neal said. "The last time, I didn't know what he had. He's 7-6, so you can't shoot over him, so I went around him tonight."
"There's not a whole lot you can do against him," said Houston assistant Larry Smith, who fell to 2-4 since taking over for cancer-stricken Coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He is very powerful and athletic. I thought our guys battled him, but he put us in a position where we just had to foul him or he dunked on us."
Steve Francis and James Posey each scored 19 points for the Rockets (37-34), who fell to 3-10 in games decided by three points or less. That could be a factor in their drive to make the postseason. They are tied with Phoenix for the final berth in the Western Conference.
Cuttino Mobley scored 15 points and Glen Rice added 11 for the Rockets, who shot 40 percent from the floor (34-of-85), and held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. Francis added 10 rebounds and eight assists.