Rockets duo helps Houston handle New York -- again

NEW YORK (AP) -- Just when the Knicks finally started to solve Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady stepped up.

Two stars was one too many for struggling New York on Monday night.

Yao had 26 points and nine rebounds in another strong game against the Knicks, and McGrady added 24 points in the Houston Rockets' 97-90 victory over New York.

McGrady scored 15 points in the second half, including six during a decisive 10-1 surge in the fourth quarter. He also made three of Houston's 10 3-pointers.

"I think somewhat in the past two games that teams are trying to drill Yao a little bit too much," McGrady said, "and I've kind of been deferring too much to him in the second half, or the fourth quarter, rather. I just wanted to insert myself on the offensive end."

Rafer Alston finished with 17 points for the Rockets, who beat the Knicks for the fifth straight time, their longest winning streak ever during the series. Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy improved to 7-1 against his former team and remained unbeaten as a visiting coach on his old home floor.

"It's always special," Van Gundy said. "It's an honor to walk out on the floor on Madison Square Garden. That never gets old. Not when I was here and certainly when you only get to do it once a year."

The Knicks did a better job on Yao than last time, when he collected 35 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots in the Rockets' 104-93 victory in Houston on Nov. 10. The 7-foot-6 Yao was only 6-of-14 from the floor -- with one miss coming when 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson blocked him in the closing seconds of the third quarter.

"I was blocked by a 5-3 guy before, so that's not a record," Yao said.

The Rockets have won four straight at Madison Square Garden -- all since Van Gundy became Houston coach.

Then again, just about everybody wins at the Garden these days -- except the Knicks. New York fell to 1-5 at home despite 25 points from Jamal Crawford and 22 from Channing Frye. David Lee added 15 points and 12 rebounds.

The Knicks needed plenty from their role players to stay in the game, because they got little from their starting backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. The duo totaled 10 points, six assists and six turnovers -- and combined to play a little more than 6 minutes in the second half.

"We win as a team and lose as a team," Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said. "It's not about one player or two players. I just try to use everything I have on the bench or within the reach for us to try to win the basketball game.

"We were just trying to hang in, trying to hang around and try to steal it. They were good, Yao and Tracy were a little too much for us tonight."

With the game tied at 70 with under 8 minutes to play, McGrady made a 3-pointer, and after Eddy Curry made one free throw, McGrady went 3-of-3 at the line for a 76-71 lead with 6:13 left. Yao's follow and dunk made it 80-71 with 4 1/2 to go, and the Rockets were never threatened again.

Neither team led by more than five points during a first half that included 10 ties and six lead changes. Yao knocked down a short turnaround jumper with 0.8 seconds left, giving him 15 points and the Rockets a 48-45 halftime advantage.

The Knicks got off to a sloppy start after the break -- Marbury and Francis were benched after 65 seconds following New York's two turnovers on the first two possessions -- and Houston capitalized by building a 10-point lead with 7:53 remaining.

"I didn't understand that," Marbury said. "I mean, we were in the game for 2 minutes. He felt like Steve got a turnover, I got a turnover. I guess he felt like Nate and Jamal could pretty much get them back in."

The Knicks fought back, with Robinson's swat leading to a dunk by Lee that made it 65-62 heading to the final period.

Game notes
After Yao's big game in the first meeting, the Knicks activated seldom-used reserve center Kelvin Cato for Monday's game and put G Mardy Collins on the inactive list. Cato is familiar with Yao after playing for Houston from 1999-04. "Just because he understands him doesn't mean he can stop him," Thomas said. ... Patrick Ewing got a big ovation while watching from a courtside seat for the second time in three nights. The former Knicks star also coached under Van Gundy in Houston. Knicks F Jared Jeffries, out all season with a broken wrist, had a CAT scan Monday and was cleared to participate in non-contact drills. He will continue to wear a splint and be re-evaluated in two weeks. ... With Yao in town, the Knicks celebrated "Asian Heritage Night" with Asian music and entertainment.