Rockets continue to apply tough defensive pressure

HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets have relied mostly on their stingy defense since Yao Ming broke his right leg last month.

They added some sharp passing on Monday night and routed the Philadelphia 76ers.

Tracy McGrady scored 25 points before sitting out the fourth quarter and Rafer Alston had nine of Houston's season-high 31 assists in the Rockets' 105-84 victory.

"We were moving the ball and getting everybody involved," said McGrady, who also had five assists. "When you get out to a great lead like that, it's fun to just sit back and watch."

Juwan Howard added 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists as the Rockets held an opponent to 85 points or fewer for the third straight game. Houston, which leads the league in scoring defense, beat Portland 99-69 on Friday night.

The Rockets are 12-6 since Yao's injury. Yao is expected to return in late February.

"We're working on being a great team," Alston said. "When Yao Ming gets back, that could tell it all, how good we are and are we going to go from good to great."

Houston smothered the 76ers after Philadelphia hit 10 of 20 shots in the first quarter. The 76ers went 24-for-68 (35 percent) the rest of the way and were outrebounded 48-39 in the game.

Samuel Dalembert had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Andre Iguodala scored 19 points for Philadelphia, which had won three of its previous four games.

The Sixers trailed by 24 at halftime and by 38 after three quarters before Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy mercifully pulled his starters.

"We didn't move the ball and they got easy shots all night," Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks said. "They played very good defense and our defense wasn't where we wanted it.

"Everything we did didn't work and everything they did worked."

The 76ers' defensive game plan was sound enough.

From the start, the 76ers double-teamed McGrady almost every time he touched the ball, but the sharp-passing Rockets still built an early lead. Howard was often the open man when McGrady got surrounded and scored 10 points in the first quarter.

The Rockets had 11 assists in the first quarter -- one more than they had in an entire game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 23, the day Yao cracked his right tibia.

"Passing is contagious," Howard said. "It was contagious tonight. Everyone started sharing the basketball."

With McGrady on the bench, Houston started the second quarter with a decisive 14-2 spurt. Bonzi Wells drove for a dunk and Luther Head sank two 3-pointers to help the Rockets open a 43-23 lead. Head had three 3s in the game and finished with 11 points.

After the decent start, the 76ers turned suddenly inept in the second quarter, missing 9 of 10 shots with four turnovers in the first 5 minutes.

Andre Miller hit a fadeaway to stop Houston's run, but the Rockets continued to dominate with crisp passing and suffocating defense.

Houston had 23 field goals and 19 assists at halftime and led 58-34. The Sixers missed 18 of 23 shots in the second quarter.

Even the hard-to-please Van Gundy was happy with the first-half performance.

"We're just trying to concentrate on playing good basketball with a good level of physical and mental energy," he said. "They did a good job of that tonight."

Both teams looked sloppy on offense in the ugly third quarter. McGrady kept Philadelphia at bay with 15 points, including a reverse dunk following Alston's eighth assist.

The Sixers missed 15 of their first 18 shots after the break and never challenged. Houston finished the third quarter with a 19-8 spurt, capped by Howard's final two baskets of the game.

Van Gundy played only reserves in the fourth quarter, but the hapless Sixers got no closer than 20 the rest of the way. Van Gundy was still incensed that the Sixers outscored the Rockets 33-16 in the final 12 minutes

"The fourth quarter is totally unacceptable," he said. "That's why I never want to hear somebody else tell me they want to play more."

Game notes
The Rockets are 13-2 against the Eastern Conference. ... Houston has won eight of the last nine meetings with Philadelphia ... Kyle Korver hit Philadelphia's first 3-pointer with 11:02 left in the game. The Rockets' last three opponents have gone 7-of-38 from 3-point range.


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