Parker scores 23 as Spurs beat Rockets

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Houston Rockets looked like they were on the
verge of a comeback against San Antonio midway through the fourth
quarter on Saturday night.

The Spurs shrugged off the challenge, scored when they needed to
and put the Rockets away.

Tony Parker scored 23 points and Tim Duncan added 14 to help the
Spurs keep pace with Dallas for the best record in the West with a
92-77 victory.

The Spurs recovered from a 5-for-23 shooting start to match the
Mavs' 52-14 record atop the Western Conference.

"It was absolutely a big win for us," Duncan said, "but the
start looked like it was going the wrong way."

Yao Ming scored 20 points for the Rockets, the 13th straight
time he's reached 20. He also grabbed 10 rebounds for his 26th

But Houston has lost four in a row for the first time since
dropping seven straight in January and the latest losses are
following the same pattern -- with Tracy McGrady sidelined with back
trouble, Yao isn't getting enough help.

Juwan Howard scored 18 and Luther Head had 12 for the Rockets.
But Rafer Alston, who had 18 in Wednesday's 95-81 loss to Dallas,
went 2-for-14 from the field and scored only eight points.

In November, McGrady scored 27 in another loss to the Spurs. He
sat out for the 19th time this season on Saturday and the Rockets
dropped to 2-17 without him.

His absence allowed the Spurs to converge on Yao and dare the
Rockets to shoot from the outside. And Houston went 0-for-7 from
3-point range.

"Tracy not being there made it a whole lot easier for us,"
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

The Rockets trailed by 13 with 8 minutes left, but Head's layup
capped a mini-rally and trimmed Houston's deficit to seven.

The Spurs, the league's best defensive team, allowing 88 points
per game, then held the Rockets to four baskets the rest of the way
to beat Houston for the fifth straight time.

The Spurs have won four in a row overall and 12 of their last

The Rockets, meanwhile, might as well start planning for next

McGrady could be out the rest of the season with a back injury
and the Rockets, plagued by injuries all season, got another scare
early in the game when Yao collided with Nazr Mohammed. Yao went
down, clutching his right knee, but stayed in the game after the
Rockets called time out.

Yao had only five points in the first 9 minutes, but the Rockets
led because of the Spurs' 3-for-16 start. The Spurs trailed 17-11
after one, a season low in a first quarter for a Houston opponent.

San Antonio stayed close with its defense, then sank four
straight shots and took its first lead at 23-22 on Michael Finley's
3-pointer with 6:42 left in the half. After the awful start, the
Spurs sank eight of their next 10 shots.

"Every time we play Houston, we have a hard time scoring,"
Parker said. "Whenever you make the outside shot, it opens things
up for us."

While the Spurs found their range, the Rockets' offense suddenly
fell apart, with four consecutive turnovers and no points for 3

Yao said the Spurs' defense is the best the Rockets have seen
this season, clogging the lane and contesting passes to the post.

"Whatever we do, we cannot hit the paint, with our post-up or
penetration," Yao said. "And if you see our offensive rebounds,
they're way down. They play the paint very well."

The Spurs led 39-33 at halftime, 60-53 after three quarters,
then opened the final quarter with a 12-6 spurt to seemingly put
the Rockets away.

But San Antonio then went 4 minutes without a field goal and the
Rockets surged to within seven. Duncan ended the Spurs' drought
with a layup and Bowen sank a 3-pointer with 3:34 left to restore
the double-digit edge.

"We have shown we play against these very good teams," Howard
said. "But down the stretch, we haven't been able to respond. We
turn the ball over, we miss shots, we allow too many layups."
^Notes:@ The Rockets have lost their last four in a stretch of seven
straight against teams with winning records. Houston plays the L.A.
Clippers on Monday. ...The Rockets dropped to 0-12 against teams in
the Southwest Division. ... After matching a career high with 30
points against Phoenix on Friday, Mohammed scored only seven