Yao is out at least six weeks after fracturing the bone under his right knee in the Los Angeles Clippers' 98-93 victory over the Rockets on Saturday night.
Yao went down six minutes into the game and was taken to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. The Rockets initially said Yao suffered a bone bruise, but an MRI test revealed a fracture of his right tibial plateau, trainer Keith Jones said.
The injury wrecks the best start of Yao's career. He was averaging 27 points and nine rebounds and had topped 30 points in four consecutive games before scoring 22 in Friday's 97-78 win at San Antonio.
"That's our guy," guard Rafer Alston said. "You're talking about a guy who's on an MVP pace, a guy that's been carrying this team for the last two seasons. That hurts."
The Rockets were already playing without Tracy McGrady, who sat out his seventh consecutive game with back spasms.
The injuries are ominous flashbacks to last season, when Yao and McGrady missed a total of 60 games with injuries and Houston finished 34-48. The Rockets went 1-8 last season when neither Yao nor McGrady played.
"We don't have a choice," said Shane Battier, who scored a season-high 28 on Saturday. "We have to be tougher, we have to be more mentally sharp and we have to not expect less from ourselves when T-Mac and Yao are out."
Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said before Saturday's game that he was uncertain when McGrady would return. Yao is gone until at least mid-February and faces his third injury rehab in a year.
Last December, he underwent surgery for a toe infection and missed 21 games. In April, he broke his left foot in Utah and missed the final four games of the season.
"If there's ever been an athlete who doesn't deserve the bad breaks he's gotten the last two years, it's him," said Van Gundy. "He works hard, he's in great shape, so I feel badly for him."
Tim Thomas scored 21 points and Chris Kaman had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Clippers, who snapped a six-game losing streak. Cuttino Mobley scored 18 and Elton Brand had 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists as Los Angeles finally took control in the fourth quarter after Yao got hurt.
"We got a major break when Yao went down," said Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "We moved the ball better, we had open gaps and we were able to make our shots."
The Rockets led 14-12 when Yao went down clutching his right knee and screaming in pain. Yao was leaping for a blocked shot as Chuck Hayes and Thomas hit the floor beneath him. Yao's knee appeared to get caught under Thomas' body.
After a tense few minutes, Jones and Bonzi Wells helped Yao limp to the locker room.
"It was a shock when I saw him down on the floor like that," said Houston guard Luther Head. "Yao falls a lot, but this time, he didn't get up for a long time. You saw a lot of people's heads go down."
Houston survived for more than two quarters without Yao, turning to its perimeter shooting and league-leading scoring defense to keep the lead. The Rockets led 48-39 at the break after going 6-for-9 from 3-point range and holding the Clippers to 35 percent shooting.
Battier made three 3-pointers in the first half and had 20 points at halftime, two more than his previous season high. Dikembe Mutombo, Yao's backup, had two points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the opening half.
Battier started the second half with a left-handed hook to match the Rockets' biggest lead. But the 7-foot Kaman scored twice over Mutombo to start a 14-3 Clippers spurt -- and the Rockets' collapse.
"We have enough to win and we didn't play that way," Van Gundy said. "I feel badly for Yao, but I was very disappointed in the group effort in the second half."
Head hit a 3-pointer to put the Rockets up 53-45, but Thomas and Mobley sank back-to-back 3-pointers and Mobley made a turnaround jumper to tie the game.
The Rockets were lucky to trail only 69-67 heading to the fourth quarter. They went 7-for-21 from the field and were outrebounded 11-6 in the third.
Mobley beat Head to a loose ball and ran for a breakaway dunk with 4:40 left to put the Clippers up 87-79. Livingston followed with a deep jumper and Brand drove for a dunk that gave the Clippers a 91-79 lead.
Alston scored on two drives in the final 1:11 to draw the Rockets within four, but Daniel Ewing sank three free throws in the last 25 seconds to secure the victory.
- Former Rocket Sam Cassell played eight minutes and did not score, then sat out the second half with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
- Thomas' 21 points tied his season high.