Yao's 32 points, 10 boards boosts Rockets over Clippers

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Houston Rockets proved to themselves that
they could win a game without Tracy McGrady. The next step is
tightening up their defense.

Yao Ming had 32 points and 10 rebounds, Rafer Alston added 24
points and eight assists, and the Rockets snapped a three-game
losing streak with a 108-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers
on Sunday in their fourth game without McGrady.

The six-time All-Star was scratched again because of back
spasms. Luther Head, making his fourth straight start in McGrady's
absence, scored 14 points in 40 1-2 minutes and extended his streak
to 23 consecutive games with at least one 3-point basket -- tying
the franchise record shared by Sleepy Floyd and Matt Maloney.

"We're trying to show that we can win games and pull games out
without Tracy," Alston said. "His absence has been a factor in
stretches of games where we were staggering, didn't have much
continuity and weren't scoring the ball. Today we were trying to
stop the losing streak, No. 1, and we also needed to play better on
both sides of the ball."

The Rockets have allowed 100 or more points in five consecutive
games since giving up a franchise record-low 62 points to the
Charlotte Bobcats on Dec. 8. It's the longest such streak in Jeff
Van Gundy's 11 seasons as an NBA head coach, including eight with
the New York Knicks.

"It's just a lack of concentration on defense, along with
energy and effort," Alston said. "Not making the second effort
has been hurting us -- letting teams get to the offensive glass on
us and pound us in the paint. So we have to look at film and get
back to the things we're capable of doing."

Shaun Livingston led Los Angeles with 21 points, nine rebounds
and six assists. Chris Kaman had 20 points and 11 boards, and Elton
Brand chipped in with 19 points and nine rebounds.

The injury-plagued Clippers have dropped five of their last
eight home games after starting out a franchise-best 6-0. They have
dropped four straight overall and 12 of the last 14 meetings with
the Rockets.

"It's a double disappointment because we're losing games and
losing players. But we've just got to keep fighting and plugging
away," Brand said. "One of the things that's missing from last
year are energy, defensive rotations, and the fire and will to win.
We've got to get that back."

Neither team led by more than five points during a 15:57
stretch, which ended when Shane Battier's 3-pointer gave Houston a
54-46 advantage with 9:22 left in the third quarter. The Rockets
continued to keep the Clippers at bay with their perimeter
shooting, getting three 3-pointers from Alston and one from Head
during a 5-minute span.

"It's a fine line when to double-team Yao and when not to. And
they made us pay the price with some of our double teams with their
3-point shooting," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said.

Trailing by 12 late in the third, the Clippers cut it to 100-96
as Corey Maggette scored nine of his 19 points in a 3:51 span --
including a 17-footer with 1:19 to play. But Yao responded with an
8-foot turnaround jumper, then blocked Maggette's driving layup out
of bounds with 54 seconds to go.

Cuttino Mobley hit an 18-footer and Head made one of two free
throws at the other end, before Maggette's layup cut Houston's lead
to 103-100 with 19.5 seconds left. But Alston clinched it with four
free throws in the final 14.7 seconds.

Tim Thomas started at small forward for the Clippers, but never
made it out of the first quarter. He left the floor just 38 seconds
after the opening tip because of a bruised left knee and returned
with 5:54 left in the quarter. But less than 3 1-2 minutes later,
he bruised his left elbow in a collision with Dikembe Mutombo and
was knocked on his back by referee Phil Robinson while clutching
his painful elbow. X-rays were negative.

Sam Cassell was scratched for the second time in three games
because of a sore left heel that limited him to just 12 minutes in
the Clippers' loss at Portland on Friday. Another guard, Quinton
Ross, left the game with 7:48 remaining in the third quarter
because of back spasms.

"It's tough times because of matchups, but I never try to put
it on injuries because injuries are an opportunity for other guys
to step up and get better," Dunleavy said. "We were hoping that
part of our strength was going to be our depth, but that has been
pretty well stretched right now."

Game notes
Van Gundy was glad to be some 3,000 miles away from
Saturday night's Knicks-Nuggets brawl at Madison Square Garden.
When he coached New York, the Knicks engaged in a pair of
postseason brawls with the Miami Heat. One of them resulted in the
diminutive Van Gundy hanging onto the leg of Miami's Alonzo
Mourning and getting dragged around the Garden court with 1.4
seconds left in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series in 1998,
after Mourning exchanged punches with Larry Johnson.
"Unfortunately, I was involved in two of them and made a fool out
of myself in one of them. So I have empathy for anybody that lost
control last night," Van Gundy said. "It's certainly unfortunate,
but I don't see it as any indicator of trouble. It was an isolated
incident. Things like that are not indicative of the state of the
NBA. I don't think it has any lasting ramifications."

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