HOUSTON, March 26 (Ticker) -- Yao Ming took it on the chin from both Shaquille O'Neal and Rick Fox.

NBA TV highlights from
56k | 300k
O'Neal powered his way to 39 points against a battered Yao, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 96-93 victory over the Houston Rockets.

In his first matchup with Yao on January 17, O'Neal had his problems early on. He had a couple of his shots blocked while the Chinese rookie sensation made a couple of baskets over the three-time NBA Finals MVP.

Although O'Neal got the better of the boxscore, the Rockets won in overtime as Yao provided the clinching dunk in the closing seconds. This time, O'Neal appeared intent on giving Yao a lesson.

"I played the same type of game (as last time)," O'Neal said. "Last time, I had 31 points and he had 10. It's just that we lost. Everybody talks about the three blocks that he had, but when you're 7-6, you're supposed to block those shots."

"He played a lot of minutes and when he plays that many minutes, he's gonna score points," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He was definitely motivated tonight, no doubt about it. He's at that point in the season where it's the playoff drive."

The 7-2, 350-pound O'Neal wasted no time asserting himself, bulling his way past the 7-5 Yao for a couple of dunks in the first quarter. He eventually sent Yao to the bench with foul trouble.

In the third quarter, Yao tried to follow his own missed hook shot. His chin banged against the back of Fox's head and both players went down. Yao stayed on the floor for a minute or so, holding his ears and his head, before leaving the court.

Yao returned, but maybe he should have stayed in the locker room. Working on Yao and Kelvin Cato, O'Neal scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, including three ferocious dunks. The last one came with 19 seconds left and gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead.

"I don't have to make statements," O'Neal said. "Everybody knows the type of player I am. I took the M.D.E. title away from Hakeem (Olajuwon) when he left Houston and I'm not giving it back after one game."

Asked what M.D.E. stood for, O'Neal said, "Most Dominant Ever."

Yao had one of his worst games of the season. Limited to 30 minutes by foul trouble, he managed just six points on 3-of-13 shooting.

"He takes a lot of jumpers and I try to disrupt his shot and his timing," O'Neal said. "I think he knows how to attack me, so I have to learn how to defend him," Yao said through an interpreter. "Last time, he tried to get to the hole quicker, but this time, he just kept backing up. If he uses his strength against me, there's not a lot I can do."

Kobe Bryant had 31 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers (41-30), who completed a stretch in which they played nine of 10 games on the road by going 6-4. They are one game behind sixth-place Utah in the Western Conference.

Steve Francis and James Posey scored 19 points each for the Rockets (37-34), who fell to 3-10 in games decided by three points or less, which could be a factor in whether they make the playoffs. They are tied with Phoenix for the final postseason berth in the West.

Despite O'Neal's dominance, the Rockets held an 82-79 lead with 4:17 left on two free throws by Maurice Taylor, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter.

O'Neal bulldozed Yao out of the way for a dunk that drew a foul. He missed the free throw but grabbed the rebound and dunked again for an 83-82 lead.

"There's not a whole lot you can do against him," said Rockets assistant Larry Smith, who fell to 2-4 since taking over for cancer-stricken coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He is very powerful and athletic. I thought our guys battled him, but he put us in a position where we just had to foul him or he dunked on us."

Francis hit a jumper and Glen Rice drilled a 3-pointer, giving Houston an 87-83 lead with with 3:13 remaining. But Fox answered with a 3-pointer.

After Taylor scored inside, Robert Horry made a layup and O'Neal threw in a hook to give LA a 90-89 edge with 1:43 to play. Cato followed his own miss, but O'Neal got deep position and scored to make it 92-91 with 1:03 left.

"You have to get in there and battle him," said Rice, a former Laker. "When he catches the ball that deep, you have to foul before he gets an opportunity to get the ball up. And that part we didn't execute."

After Taylor missed a jump hook, the Lakers again went to O'Neal. His dunk attempt banged against the rim, but he got the rebound and appeared to be fouled on a follow shot. Undeterred, he stayed with the play and dunked over Yao.

"I played my game, the same game I played against everyone," O'Neal said. "The last time, I didn't know what he had. He's 7-6, so you can't shoot over him, so I went around him tonight."

Yao dunked at the other end, but Bryant was fouled and sank both free throws with 9.6 seconds to go. On the final possession, O'Neal jumped out on a high pick to harass Rice, who missed a potential tying 3-pointer.

Derek Fisher scored 10 points and Fox added nine for the Lakers, who shot 49 percent (36-of-74).

Cuttino Mobley scored 15 points and Rice added 11 for the Rockets, who shot just 40 percent (34-of-85) but held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. Francis added 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets bolted to an early 10-point lead, but O'Neal's forceful play helped cut the deficit to 24-22 after one quarter. In the second period, he had two more monstrous dunks as the Lakers grabbed a 41-38 halftime lead.

"He gets pumped up on little things like that," Bryant said. "He wanted to silence the talk after the last game against Yao. It took him a few minutes to figure him out, but once he did, he dominated him like he does everybody else."

Yao's collision with Fox temporarily cost him his hearing.

"Yao had some moments where he was great, but after he got cracked in the jaw, it changed how he played," Jackson said.

"I got hit in the chin and I couldn't hear," Yao said. "It took me a few minutes to gather myself, but it did not affect the game or how I played."

Bryant scored LA's last seven points of the third quarter, providing a 66-64 lead.