His smile said it for him.
“It doesn’t matter where we got it,” Francis said. “We just had to have a win. It didn’t matter if it was here or at home.”
Francis played for the Rockets from 1999-2004 and then was traded in June 2004 in a blockbuster deal that brought Tracy McGrady to Houston. With McGrady out three weeks with a back injury, the stage belonged to Francis at the Toyota Center.
He was booed when he was introduced and almost every time he touched the ball, but shook off the jeers to shoot 12-of-26 from the field.
Francis broke into a smile in the closing seconds, then enthusiastically slapped hands with friends at courtside—right in front of Rockets owner Les Alexander.
“I really enjoyed the win,” Francis said. “It was a great victory, especially against the Rockets.”
Yao Ming scored 17 points for Houston (1-2), which looked shaky on offense for the second straight game without McGrady. The Rockets lost 91-84 to New Orleans on Saturday.
“There will be things we’ll have to correct,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “I thought we played a cleaner game as far as being efficient. We’re just struggling.”
But just like Saturday night, Houston had a chance to win, leading 71-67 after a layup by Rafer Alston with 2:06 left.
The Rockets double-teamed Francis in the closing minutes, but Francis twice dribbled into the lane and found Nelson open for 3-pointers that put Orlando up 73-71.
Nelson had gone 2-for-8 from 3-point range in Orlando’s last five games, including the last two of the preseason. He missed his first three shots on Tuesday night before hitting a running 8-footer with 3:19 left. And then came the clutch 3-pointers.
“Nelson hasn’t been making his shots lately. I told him to stick with it,” Francis said. “We knew he had to make a shot sooner or later.”
After Alston missed a 3-pointer, Francis again drew in the Houston defense and passed to Nelson at the top of the key. This time, Nelson drove to the basket and hit an acrobatic layup over Yao with 51 seconds remaining.
“Steve told me to keep shooting and he’s the team leader,” Nelson said. “When he tells you to keep shooting, you keep shooting. I know he’s going to keep shooting, so if he tells me to, why not?”
Yao and Alston missed point-blank shots in the last minute, epitomizing the Rockets’ struggles all night.
The Rockets open a daunting five-game road trip on Thursday in Miami and they’re hoping the change of venue improves their shooting.
“We really played well on the road last year,” Rockets guard David Wesley said. “Maybe it’s the hotel food or something, I don’t know. Maybe we can find a way to kind of get it together. Hopefully, we can come back with some momentum.”
The Rockets went 18-of-19 from the free throw line, but 4-of-16 from 3-point range.
An ugly first half ended with the Rockets up 39-38.
For the second straight game without McGrady, Van Gundy spent the opening half tinkering with lineups. Yao scored 10 in the first half and Stromile Swift was Houston’s best reserve, adding six points with five rebounds.
Francis had 15 of Orlando’s first-half points on 7-of-13 shooting as the rest of the Magic went 9-of-26 from the field.
Yao picked up three fouls in the third quarter after getting through the first half without getting any. The Rockets missed 10 of their 15 third-quarter shots and trailed 55-52 heading to the fourth.
The teams were meeting for the third time since the seven-player trade that sent McGrady and Juwan Howard to the Rockets and Francis to Orlando. Houston won both meetings last season. … Ryan Bowen started for Houston, just the 60th start of his seven-year NBA career. … Former Australian and French Open champion Jim Courier watched the game at courtside and whacked autographed tennis balls into the crowd during a timeout. … The Magic snapped a six-game losing streak to Houston.