Daily Confidential

The Houston Rockets are having their best stretch of the season despite losing one of the league's best centers. A second straight road win at a hostile arena could further their confidence.

The Rockets (24-13) face the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, looking to continue an impressive run and get a rare win at Arco Arena.

Houston has won three straight and eight of their last nine, all without Yao Ming, who has missed the last 10 games due to a fractured right leg. But the Rockets have not missed the 7-6 center that much with Tracy McGrady playing well since returning from a back injury and the surprising re-emergence of 40-year-old center Dikembe Mutombo, who continued his strong play in the middle with seven points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in Houston's 90-86 win at Denver on Friday.

McGrady finished with 12 points and 11 assists and has averaged 26.2 points since Dec. 26 after missing seven games due to back spasms.

"He's a playmaker," said Rockets forward Shane Battier, who scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. "He makes the right decisions 98 percent of the time. Some nights he helps us by shooting, some nights by his assists."

Following Saturday's game, the Rockets play a brutal five-game stretch that features the top three teams in the West. They will play at Southwest rivals Dallas and San Antonio, and will host Pacific-leading Phoenix at home over an 11-day span. But Houston's defense is holding teams to a league-low 89.1 points per game, giving Jeff Van Gundy's team a chance to win night in and night out.

"We're a stoic group," Battier said. "We're not going to let the highs and lows get to us. We just wanted to play good, solid Rocket basketball."

Houston has lost 12 of its last 14 games at Arco Arena since the start of the 1999-2000 season, but two of those wins have come in the last three games.

The Kings (14-19) have lost three straight at home and four in a row overall following Friday's 95-87 loss at Portland in which they squandered an 11-point first-half lead. Kevin Martin had 17 points and Ron Artest added 16, but the two also combined for 11 of Sacramento's 21 turnovers.

"You have to play at both ends of the floor," said forward Corliss Williamson, who had 14 points. "We need to get stops on defense and we didn't do that tonight."

After this game, the Kings will play eight of their next 11 on the road, where they are 4-9. Sacramento is just 10-10 at Arco Arena after going 27-14 there last season.

The Kings need a win to avoid matching a season-high five-game losing streak established Dec. 1-7.

Copyright 2006 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited