OLIVIER MORIN  /  AFP/Getty Images
Yao Ming leads the Olympic delegation of China during the Olympis Opening Ceremony on Friday.
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updated 8/9/2008 1:33:00 AM ET 2008-08-09T05:33:00

On Wednesday, Yao Ming held aloft the Olympic torch, carrying it through Tiananmen Gate in Beijing as part of the torch's relay, which ends Saturday with the opening ceremonies. He was humbled by the experience, fully aware of the significance of holding the Olympic Games in China. "I've always felt that type of honor should be reserved for the older generations of Chinese sportspersons," he told reporters after. "They've stood the test of time and have a deeper sentiment for the Olympics and Chinese sports."

That humility notwithstanding, Yao is a central figure at these games, one of his country's few truly international sports stars. From the very start of his NBA career in Houston in 2003, Yao made clear that his priority is his national team — particularly the Olympics. Before hopping on a plane and heading to Beijing, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey took a moment to consider just how important the upcoming tournament was to his star player. "He has said this: It's the most important set of games he's ever played in his life," Morey said.

That has expectations for the Chinese team's home fans running pretty high. Yao has been among those trying to temper those expectations, saying the goal is to finish in the Top 8, something China accomplished in the '04 games. Many Chinese fans are unhappy with that goal — another eighth-place spot, with the home-court advantage, hardly seems like progress — but the fact is, in the most important tournament of his career, Yao and the Chinese should consider themselves lucky if they finish in the top 8.

That's because an eighth-place finish probably hinges on beating a pretty good team that has its own well-known star player. With the way pool play is arranged in the Olympics, next Saturday's outing — that's Aug. 16, against Germany — figures to be the most important single game of Yao's basketball-playing life. And to be blunt, Yao's prospects of winning that game are less than 50-50.

China had the bum luck to be stuck in a pool with three of the four top medal contenders in this tournament — the U.S., Greece and Spain. In the Olympics, the 12 teams are divided into two pools of six. Each team plays the other teams in its pool, and the top four teams in the pool advance to the quarterfinals, which guarantees a Top 8 finish. But China has virtually no chance to beat any of the three medal contenders in pool play, which means we can figure on three losses. Angola is unlikely to win a game in the tournament, so we can chalk up a win there.

That leaves Germany, in pretty much the same boat as the Chinese team. The Germans don't have the depth to keep up with Spain, the U.S. or Greece. They should beat Angola. Both China and Germany can be penciled in for 1-3 in their other games. The difference, then, between fourth place in the pool (and top 8 overall) and a devastating disappointment for Yao and the national team is how they play against Dirk Nowitzki and friends. The winner of that game likely will be 2-3. The loser will be 1-4, and out of the tournament.

So, how do they stack up? There's no one on the Chinese roster who can guard Nowitzki, and the task has gotten tougher because the Germans added Clippers center Chris Kaman inside. If Kaman can play within FIBA rules, avoid foul trouble (which might be tough with the home crowd's influence) and somehow neutralize Yao--he doesn't have to win the matchup, just keep it close--China figures to be in some trouble.

Which would mean a 10th place finish in a field of 12. The result would be a serious blow to the Chinese, especially Yao.

© 2013 Sporting News

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