Rockets 92, Clippers 87
McGrady scored 27 points in slightly less than 40 minutes and Yao had 24 points and 15 rebounds during a foul-plagued 34 minutes, leading the Rockets to a 92-87 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
The Rockets, who secured a playoff spot Monday with a win against Milwaukee, are 11-3 since Yao returned to the lineup. The five-time All-Star center missed 32 games healing a bone in his right leg he broke against the Clippers on Dec. 23.
“If we want to play our very best, Tracy and Yao have to play at a high level of efficiency for a lot of minutes,” coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “I think that gives us our best chance of winning.”
Shane Battier made a clutch 3-pointer in the final minute, helping the Rockets beat the Clippers for the 14th time in their last 17 meetings. Houston is fifth in the Western Conference, 1 1/2 games behind fourth-place Utah, and would like to have homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason. But that isn’t Van Gundy’s primary concern.
“You want to get the highest seed that you can, obviously, but I’ve never focused in as much on who’s in front of us or who’s behind us. That type of thinking always gets you into trouble,” he said. “We’re glad that we qualified, and we’re going to try to get better over these next three weeks.”
The loss trimmed the Clippers’ lead over Golden State to 1 1/2 games for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth.
“We have to give Houston credit, because we played too well to lose that one,” Elton Brand said. “If we continue to play this well, we will make the playoffs.”
Los Angeles pulled into an 83-all tie on a 13-footer by Jason Hart with 1:46 left. Maggette’s two free throws put the Clippers in front 87-85 with 1:05 to go, but Battier’s 3-pointer from the left sideline put Houston ahead 88-87 with 53.2 seconds left.
“I knew that T-Mac was either going to go all the way to the rack or look to pass,” Battier said. “Tim Thomas had to make a bang-bang decision, and he decided to help with T-Mac. I was open, and T-Mac is such a great passer. That’s a play that has been big for us a lot at the end of games this year. It was the same play we ran in Denver when we beat them up there.”
The Clippers had a chance to regain the lead, but Thomas missed a 23-foot jumper and Yao got the rebound with 7 seconds to go. The Rockets secured the win with two free throws each by Rafer Alston and Yao.
“The game came down to execution,” said McGrady, whose minutes are being increased because of the lack of offense the Rockets have gotten from their bench. “We were fortunate enough to come down and get a basket by Shane on the pick-and-roll with me and Yao. Then it was all about getting the stop.”
Thomas, the Clippers’ long-range specialist, liked the look he had at the basket.
“Every time I shoot the ball, I think it’s going in,” Thomas said. “It was a broken play. Jason Hart was stuck getting into the flow of the offense, and my defender gambled. I was open, so I shot the ball.”
Trailing by nine after three quarters, the Clippers opened the fourth with a 13-2 run that put them ahead 74-72 with 6:49 remaining. Thomas hit a 3-pointer just seconds after Brand blocked a short jumper by the 7-foot-6 Yao, and Brand capped the rally moments later with a reverse layup after Houston was called for a shot-clock violation.
But John Lucas responded with a 3-pointer at the other end, triggering an 11-2 spurt that gave the Rockets an 83-76 lead with 3:29 to play. McGrady capped the rally with two free throws and a 20-foot jumper.
The Clippers outscored Houston 15-4 during the final 4:26 of the first quarter after Yao went to the bench with his second foul. Brand brought the crowd of 18,605 to its feet with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from 27 feet at the left sideline for a 29-21 lead.
It was only his second 3-pointer in 13 attempts spanning 595 career regular-season games—and it came on his first such attempt this season. His other 3-point basket came on March 11, 2006, when he beat the halftime buzzer with a 28-footer during a 106-98 victory at Milwaukee.
The Clippers’ next game is Friday night at Sacramento, where they have lost 17 straight. … The Rockets are back at Staples Center on Friday night against the Lakers. … McGrady scored eight points in the final 3:04 of the third as Houston turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a 70-61 lead.