Rockets 103, Sonics 96

HOUSTON, Jan. 3 (AP) -- So far, the Houston Rockets are finding ways to win without Yao Ming.

Tracy McGrady scored 31 points, topping 30 for the third straight game, and Juwan Howard added 18 as the Rockets beat the Seattle SuperSonics 103-96 on Wednesday night.

McGrady also had seven assists and Dikembe Mutombo grabbed 14 rebounds as the Rockets won their fourth straight game. Houston is 4-1 since Yao broke a bone in his right leg.

"We don't really know when Yao is coming back,'' said the 7-foot-2 Mutombo, Yao's backup. "So, you don't want to wait to use all the tools you've got in the box. That's what (Coach) Jeff (Van Gundy) is doing, trying to challenge each one of us to play to the best of our abilities.''

Ray Allen scored 32 on 13-of-22 shooting for the Sonics, who've lost four of their last five and 10 in a row on the road. Damien Wilkins added 19.

The Sonics shot 50 percent (36-of-72) from the field against Houston's league-leading scoring defense. But the Rockets outrebounded Seattle 41-32, the 24th time this season that Houston has had the edge on the boards. The Rockets also had a season-low eight turnovers.

"With Yao out, we really try to get our turnovers down to below 14 a game,'' McGrady said. "We did a great job of taking care of the ball.''

The Rockets improved to 6-0 at home this season when they reach 100 points. They're 36-3 at home under Van Gundy when they reach the mark.

Both teams shot well in the high-scoring opening quarter.

McGrady had the prettiest basket of the night in the first, driving around Johan Petro, wrapping the ball behind his back on the way up, and banking it in. McGrady had 16 in the opening quarter and the Rockets led 32-30.

"I'm just going in the attack mode,'' McGrady said. "I'm going back to what I used to do and that's score the ball. With Yao in the lineup, I don't have to do as much as I have to do right now. He is a big piece that is missing out of our lineup.''

The Rockets hit 11 of their first 15 shots, then missed 10 of their next 12.

Shane Battier sank two 3-pointers and backup guard John Lucas scored eight points in the second quarter as the Rockets went to the break with a 53-48 lead.

Rafer Alston and McGrady hit 3-pointers as Houston built a 10-point lead in the first three minutes of the third quarter. McGrady hit another 3-pointer midway through the quarter as the lead bulged to 12.

Seattle closed the quarter with a 7-2 burst and trailed only 80-73.

Battier and Alston scored in the first minute of the fourth to push the lead back to double-digits. Alston missed his first six shots, then hit six of his next eight. Alston shot worse than 30 percent in Houston's previous two games.

"Rafer has really been struggling,'' Van Gundy said. "I'm really proud of him because many times, bad first halves usually compound with bad second halves. He showed great mental strength bouncing back and playing a very good second half.''

The Rockets led 84-77 with 10:09 left when McGrady returned from a short rest. Allen promptly hit a turnaround over Luther Head and added a free throw to cut Houston's lead to four.

"Ray was awfully special,'' Seattle coach Bob Hill said. "He was on a mission and he put us on his back and almost carried us.''

Head answered with a driving layup and McGrady hit two mid-range jumpers, the second one over Allen.

Allen hit back-to-back 3-pointers over Head, but McGrady found Mutombo underneath for a layup that put the Rockets up 100-92.

The Sonics cut the lead to five and McGrady missed a pull-up in the lane in the final minute. But Mutombo rebounded and got the ball to Alston and the Sonics couldn't score again.

"We were right there in the fourth quarter and gave ourselves a chance, but didn't make our stops at the end,'' Allen said. "We make small mistakes at crucial times of the game.''

Van Gundy told Mutombo he was going to play more minutes in Yao's absence. Mutombo played 28 minutes on Wednesday night.

"When it comes to rebounding, I still have a lot left,'' Mutombo said. "Right now, I have to do whatever I can to help the team win.''

Notes: Mutombo has had a double-digit rebound total in four consecutive games. ... Sonics guard Luke Ridnour jammed his right thumb in the first quarter, sat out briefly, then returned with tape around the finger. He finished with seven points and had eight assists. ... Houston native Vince Young, named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year on Wednesday, threw autographed footballs into the stands during a timeout. The former Texas star was wearing a Tracy McGrady jersey and a Rockets baseball cap.

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