<
>

Rockets hold off Jefferson, Wolves, improve to 8-1 since McGrady's return

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Tracy McGrady hasn't been able to take Houston further than a couple of first-round exits from the playoffs, and he's faced annual questions about his toughness.

This much is unarguable, though: The Rockets are 8-1 since he returned from his latest injury, and they've now won eight straight road games.

McGrady had 26 points, six rebounds, seven assists and two huge late shots, and Houston held on for a 92-86 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night.

"We had some hard times without Tracy this year, and I think those guys learned from that experience and improved so much," said Yao Ming, who had 16 points.

Though McGrady had a season-high seven turnovers, he swished two long jumpers in the final 70 seconds after Al Jefferson's tip-in gave Minnesota a one-point lead with 1:38 left.

"Tracy is getting better. He's still not in the greatest of shape missing all that time, but he played the whole second half tonight and you saw how he finished," coach Rick Adelman said.

The Wolves fell behind 75-65 with less than 7 1/2 minutes left, but Jefferson and Craig Smith clamped down the post and helped them muscle their way back in the game.

Ryan Gomes made a tip-in to tie it at 82 near the 3-minute mark, but he was called for traveling on a fast break after Jefferson blocked rookie Carl Landry's shot.

McGrady then hit a 17-footer with Rashad McCants' hand in his face, and after Sebastian Telfair's miss, he delivered the big blow.

His 3-pointer with 30 seconds on the clock made it 90-86. McGrady, who has missed more than 22 percent of Houston's games in his four seasons with the team, smirked toward the crowd and tiptoed back to his end of the court while he pressed the back of his hands against his chest.

"They did put a lot of pressure on us, and we turned the ball over a couple possessions, which was really out of character for us," McGrady said. "But they didn't get us out of our rhythm. We didn't hang our heads or anything like that. We just came back down, executed. I figured it was time for me to make a big play and hit a big shot."

Jefferson hit plenty of those himself.

He had 33 points and 16 rebounds, prompting this self-deprecating remark from Yao: "I think that's my worst game in my three years."

In last month's meeting, the Rockets didn't need much from Yao -- he had 15 points in 28 minutes -- and didn't need McGrady at all to beat the Wolves by 31 points. Jefferson? He had a season-low six points, just the second time he's scored in single digits, and a paltry six rebounds.

"We were playing like garbage then," Jefferson said. "We're playing well now."

The improvement has come from better ballhandling, tighter defense and continued low-post excellence by Jefferson, who is averaging more than 21 points and 12 rebounds per game and quickly becoming the cornerstone player Minnesota was seeking when the decision to trade Kevin Garnett was made last summer.

Jefferson has become more aggressive lately, too, and his teammates have figured out how to play off of him. Telfair had a season-high 12 assists without a turnover in this one.

The rarely used Michael Doleac started at center as a counter against Yao and did a decent job of keeping him off the low block in the first and third quarters. Jefferson was so effective with the ball against Yao that it could have had a carry-over effect on him at the other end.

The Wolves, though, were a little too sloppy in stretches to ultimately beat a team that's currently playing as well as any in the league. Their four-game home winning streak ended after turning the ball over 16 times, four by Randy Foye.

"The little things were magnified in this game," Minnesota coach Randy Wittman said.

Game notes
Steve Francis has been not played for Houston since the middle of December, and quadriceps tendinitis will continue to keep him out indefinitely. "He's not close to being able to play," Adelman said. ... Mike James, who was a big disappointment in his one season with Minnesota, has appeared in only four games for the Rockets since Christmas. ... The Wolves host Boston on Friday, but the much-anticipated return of Garnett is in question because of his abdominal injury. Wittman sounded surprised when told about that possibility, but smiled and said he'd prefer, of course, if the perennial All-Star did not play.