Inside the locker room, the vibe was different. The Rockets saw the season-ending injury to their All-Star center as a challenge, not a fatal blow.
And they kept right on rolling.
The Rockets have matched a franchise record with 15 consecutive wins, routing three opponents since Yao was sidelined on Feb. 26. Houston has won its last six games by an average of 17.5 points and will take a 10-game home winning streak into Wednesday's game against Indiana.
"We just keep proving to ourselves we have a lot in us," Alston said. "Every game, people count us out and say that will be the game to end the streak, but we dig deep and find something inside ourselves to pull each other together."
Just before Christmas, the Rockets were 13-15 and struggling with new coach Rick Adelman's offensive system -- and that was before Tracy McGrady missed 12 games with a sore left knee.
McGrady returned on Jan. 19 and suddenly, everything clicked. The Rockets have won 19 of 20 games since, combining solid defense with a versatile offense that's continued to produce in Yao's absence.
"We believe," McGrady said. "We don't care what anyone says about us outside this locker room. We as a group believe, we know how good we are and we're showing it. We're a focused group, a group that understands how to win ballgames."
McGrady, averaging 21 points per game, has scored at least 22 in five of the last six games. But he's hardly had to carry the load himself.
Alston has averaged 14 points and 7.5 assists during the run. He's also hit double figures in all but two of the victories and shot 38 percent from 3-point range (35-of-92), boosting his season average.
Shane Battier has been his dependable self, shadowing the top scorer on opposing teams while averaging 10 points and six rebounds. He's also gone 31-for-69 from 3-point range (45 percent).
"We've gotten used to the system a little better now," said power forward Luis Scola, a key to the surge. "We've gotten used to each other, that's when we started winning, that's when we started playing good."
The streak has coincided with Scola's move into the starting lineup.
He made his first NBA start against Utah on Jan. 27 after Yao came down with a respiratory infection. Scola scored 18 points in Houston's 97-89 loss that night and Adelman kept him in the starting five.
The 6-foot-9 Argentine forward, an NBA rookie but a veteran of seven seasons in Europe, has averaged 12 points and six rebounds during the run.
"Nobody is going to replace Yao," Scola said. "We know that, we've got to play that way. Everybody has got to do a little bit better, a little bit stronger and try a little bit harder. That's the only way we can survive without him."
Dikembe Mutombo, 41, has filled in capably in the middle, though he can hardly provide the scoring punch that Yao did. But the 7-2 Mutombo is still a defensive presence, swatting shots -- followed by a trademark wag of his finger -- and grabbing rebounds. "
I'm just doing my job," he said. "There is only so much I can do. I just come out and try to get rebounds or block shots. That's what they're asking me to do."
Rookie forward Carl Landry has also emerged to compensate down low. The 6-9 Landry, Scola's backup, has hit 15 of 19 shots over the last three games and scored at least 12 points in each.
Houston is also winning with stingy defense, a staple under former coach Jeff Van Gundy. The Rockets have held 10 opponents under 90 points during the streak and rank second in field-goal percentage defense (43 percent).
"We still hear Jeff's voice sometimes," Alston said. "'Don't let the ball go to the middle, help in the lane, keep the ball out of the paint,' things like that. We try to keep the same concepts, but the staff this year, they're doing a great job of giving us more wrinkles to the defense, too."
A favorable schedule has helped the Rockets, too.
Houston has beaten only six teams that currently have winning records during the run and played 10 of the 15 games at home. The slate gets tougher after Wednesday -- Houston plays Dallas on Thursday, New Orleans on Saturday and the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston, Phoenix and San Antonio over the next three weeks.
"The playoffs are now," Adelman said. "Every game you play, especially if you play the other eight or nine teams that are involved, the playoffs are on the line. You have to come out with intensity every night. You can't go on a long losing streak or you're going to be in trouble."