Rockets 123, Hornets 112

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HOUSTON (AP)—Every time the New Orleans Hornets tried to rally in the fourth quarter, Tracy McGrady had the answer.

Now, the Houston Rockets are one win away from securing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Hornets’ postseason hopes are gone.

McGrady got 11 of his 25 in the final five minutes and Yao Ming scored 30 points to lead the Rockets to a 123-112 win over New Orleans on Saturday night.

The Hornets trailed by 12 early in the final quarter, but cut the Rockets’ lead to four twice in the final 2:41. Each time, McGrady answered—with a jumper from the top of the key and then a driving dunk and a free throw with 2:04 left.

“I just wanted to put my will on the game,” said McGrady, who also had 10 assists.

Rafer Alston added 21 points and a season-high 13 assists for the Rockets, who have a two-game lead over Utah in the race for home-court in their first-round playoff series. The Jazz lost 126-98 to Phoenix on Saturday night.

“You don’t want to squander that opportunity,” Alston said of securing home-court. “I know how important it is, because you never know. If it comes down to that last game, you would much rather it be on your court with your fans.”

McGrady has been preaching to his teammates for two weeks about improving in time for the postseason.

“Right now, we have to be playing our best basketball,” McGrady said. “I still feel like we’re not getting it.”

David West matched his season high with 33 points and Chris Paul added 20 points and 15 assists for the Hornets, who are eliminated from playoff contention. New Orleans started the night two games behind Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the No. 8 playoff spot in the West.

“I am very disappointed that we didn’t make the playoffs,” Paul said. “We stuck together and never gave up.”

New Orleans center Tyson Chandler missed his fifth straight game with an injured left big toe. The 7-foot-1 Chandler defended Yao well in two previous matchups this season. Without him, the Hornets struggled to stop the 7-foot-6 Yao, who hit 11 of 16 shots and went 8-for-11 from the free-throw line.

Alston said the key on Saturday night was simply delivering the ball to Yao earlier in possessions.

“What’s been happening, sometimes, is that he’s open and we don’t get it to him right away,” Alston said. “Then they (the defense) are able to push him out farther and that’s not the shot we want him to take.”

McGrady recorded double-digit assists for the 11th time. Houston’s 33 assists were a season-high.

The Rockets hit 11 of their first 14 shots and led 27-20 after Alston’s steal and breakaway layup.

Paul had six assists in the opening quarter, but Alston’s 3-pointer from the corner with 2.4 seconds left put Houston up 32-30.

The Hornets cooled off early in the second quarter and Dikembe Mutombo’s tip-in with 8:31 left in the first half started a 14-0 Houston run. Luther Head finished a fast break with a layup and hit two 3-pointers before Yao scored to stretch the Rockets’ lead to 53-38.

After hitting 13 of 19 shots in the first quarter, New Orleans missed 10 of its first 13 shots in the second.

West scored 14 points in the third quarter, but the Rockets hit 13 of their first 19 shots after the break and led 85-78 heading to the fourth.

Shane Battier drove for a reverse layup and Head hit another 3-pointer in the first 80 seconds of the fourth quarter to push Houston’s lead to 90-78.

The Hornets got within five on five separate occasions in the final quarter, then cut it to four twice before McGrady stepped up.

“Those are back-breaker plays,” Brown said of McGrady’s clutch baskets at the end.

Battier swished a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:37 left to finally put the Hornets away.

Notes

The Rockets snapped a three-game losing streak to the Hornets and won for only the second time in the last eight meetings. … The Rockets improved to 50-7 when they lead after three quarters. … Mutombo left in the fourth quarter with a bruise above his right eye.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 New Orl/OKC
C. Paul C. Paul
9-15,  20 Pts
8 Rebs, 15 Assists
 Houston
T. McGrady T. McGrady
11-18,  25 Pts
7 Rebs, 10 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists

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Saturday, Apr 14