HOUSTON, Jan. 17 (Ticker) -- The Shaq-Yao showdown was stolen by Steve Francis.

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Francis scored a career-high 44 points, stealing the spotlight away from Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming and lifting the Houston Rockets to a 108-104 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The first meeting between O'Neal, the 7-2, 350-pound superstar center of the Lakers, and Yao, the 7-5, 300-pound rookie center of the Rockets, began with a bang and had its moments.

But the game's biggest star was Francis, who made 12-of-21 shots, 6-of-8 3-pointers, 14-of-17 free throws and handed out 11 assists. He made a 3-pointer to force overtime, then made six foul shots in the extra session before finding Yao for a crucial dunk with 10.2 seconds remaining.

"It's certainly one of my top performances," Francis said. "With Yao and Shaquille, I didn't want to overshadow that. My points came within the flow of the game. I got into a groove and hit a shot."

Playing in front of his stepfather Philip Harrison, O'Neal collected 31 points and 13 rebounds. After a slow start, he was simply overpowering at times and showed Yao that he still has a long way to go.

"He's like a truck," Yao said through an interpreter. "I've never encountered someone that strong before. He's not crafty, it's just strength. It wore me out playing him."

"Shaq was up for the game," teammate Kobe Bryant said. "It took him some time to adjust to his size but once he did, it was back to the boom."

Playing in front of his parents, Yao was no slouch, collecting 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Until his late dunk, he did most of his damage in the first five minutes, catching O'Neal a bit off guard.

"He's a classy guy," O'Neal said. "I was looking forward to playing him. He's a great player. It's another challenge for me."

"He did a great job," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "No one can stop Shaq, but I thought he (Yao) played wery well on him. He had a very good beginning and then he got tentative. It was a great learning experience."

The matchup was a spirited one and featured none of the ill will that may have existed between the big men beforehand. Prior to the game, the Organization of Chinese Americans held a news conference outside the Compaq Center and derided O'Neal for racially insensitive comments he made about Yao last June.

"I already apologized," O'Neal said. "Yao Ming is my brother. Asian people are my brothers. I grew up in the army with people of all colors. I was just joking. I made a bad joke and it's unfortunate one idiot writer tried to start a racial war on that. Don't make a racial war out of this."

"I know the Asian community has supported me. I'd like to thank them," Yao said.

Cuttino Mobley scored 29 points for the Rockets, who have won four straight games.

Bryant had 22 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Lakers, who had a five-game winning streak snapped and fell to 5-15 on the road.

With the Rockets clinging to a 102-100 lead, Francis dribbled down the shot clock and used a high pick from Yao, who rolled to the basket, took a bullet pass and dunked. Mobley made four free throws to seal the win.

"I knew this was a basket that could decide the game," Yao said. "We had very good timing on that play. Steve was very hot tonight and we knew if he got double-teamed, he would get the ball to someone else."

"I knew they would try to jump out at me and when that happened, I knew Yao had to be open," Francis said. "It happened so slow watching him dunk the ball. I was so excited for Yao when he dunked it."

Bryant made only 5-of-21 shots but took over late in the fourth quarter. He made a jumper and two free throws to give the Lakers an 89-87 lead with 1:03 remaining. After Francis tied it with a layup, Bryant sank a difficult fadeaway jumper to make it 91-89 with 36 seconds to go.

Houston lost possession on a ball that appeared to go out of bounds off Los Angeles and Bryant was fouled. But he split the free throws, leaving the door open for Francis, who drilled the tying shot from the top of the arc with 13 seconds left.

"We've made three of those off that play this year," Tomjanovich said. "When people know you have to make a 3-pointer, it's hard to get one off."

"I was running up and I heard the coaches yelling, 'Here it comes,'" Francis said. "I thought Robert Horry would come out on me, but he didn't. That's our secret weapon, but it's not a secret anymore. I was fortunate to hit that shot."

Francis opened overtime with two foul shots, but O'Neal dunked over Yao and backed him in for a spin move and a 96-94 lead with 3:17 to go. Francis made a pair of free throws around a 3-pointer by Mobley, but O'Neal again backed down Yao and dunked to keep it a one-point game with 1:27 to play.

O'Neal smothered a driving Francis but was whistled for a flagrant foul with 1:11 left. Coach Phil Jackson argued the call and was hit with a technical foul. Mobley made the technical foul shot and Francis sank both free throws for a 102-98 lead.

"We made some critical mistakes in regulation but what really bothered me was the flagrant foul call against Shaq," Jackson said. "That was just a ridiculous call. It's unfortunate the ref took the game away from us with that call."

"The unfortunate thing was it was decided by (the refs)," O'Neal said. "A whole bunch of people who paid a lot of money had to see a game that was decided by someone who doesn't make a lot (of money). That's unfortunate."

The teams traded empty possessions before Horry halved the deficit with two from the line with 33 seconds remaining.

The Rockets shot 44 percent (35-of-79), including 10-of-15 from the arc, and held a 50-43 rebounding edge. The Lakers shot 43 percent (40-of-94) and committed just eight turnovers while forcing 19.

Also among the sellout crowd of 16,285 were former Rockets greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone. In the opening minutes, they watched in amazement as Yao had a hook, layup and 15-footer over O'Neal at one end and blocked two of his shots at the other. "I wanted to be more aggressive. It gave me great encouragement," Yao said. "At the beginning of the game, I wanted to do my best to defend Shaq because he is one of the most important parts to that team."

"At the beginning of the game, I think I was trying too hard," O'Neal said. "He is 7-5, so he is supposed to block shots. Everybody gets their shot blocked. This is not the first time I had my shot blocked."

O'Neal's first basket was a dunk and did not come until the 5:51 mark. It started a 17-0 run that he capped with another dunk for a 28-17 lead with 1:31 left in the first quarter.

Things between the big men calmed down for a while. The Rockets closed to 28-22 after one period and 47-46 at halftime.