Daily Confidential

A healthy Tracy McGrady is a big reason the Houston Rockets continue to play well.

With his back problems apparently behind him, McGrady and the Rockets will look for a fifth straight win as they host the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday.

The Houston star has dealt with back problems the past few seasons, but after missing seven games in December with back spasms, McGrady is averaging 29.0 points in his last 17 games while sitting out just once to rest. The Rockets (29-16) are 2-6 without McGrady.

He had 36 points and nine assists in a 112-102 win over Seattle on Wednesday for Houston's eighth victory in its last 11 games.

"I just think that me being healthy, I'm playing with a great deal of confidence," said McGrady, who's averaging 23.7 points, 6.3 assists and 5.4 rebounds and will start for the Western Conference in this month's All-Star game. "And my team is doing the same."

Rafer Alston had 15 points and nine assists, Dikembe Mutombo had 10 points and eight rebounds and Luther Head hit three 3-pointers, including one in the fourth quarter to pad Houston's lead, and finished with 14.

While the Rockets have struggled without McGrady, they are 13-5 since losing center Yao Ming on Dec. 23 with a broken leg. Yao averaged 25.9 points and 9.4 rebounds before the injury.

"We understand the task at hand," said McGrady, who played just 47 games last season. "We know that we don't have that big guy down in the post. That gives other guys opportunities to step up and take on that challenge and they've been doing a great job of it.''

McGrady was held to 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting in the Rockets' 96-90 road loss to the Hornets on Nov. 5.

New Orleans (20-26) had Chris Paul for that game and will have him Saturday.

Paul totaled 24 points and eight assists in Friday's 90-83 win over Minnesota to close out a 4-1 homestand that featured games in New Orleans and Oklahoma City.

Paul averages 18.3 points and 8.6 assists and was playing in his second game since missing 17 with a sprained right ankle. He had nine points and a season-low two assists in a loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"He looked like the old Chris tonight," Hornets coach Byron Scott said, "and that was a very good sight to see.

"His mind has healed, that's all. The ankle's fine. It's just a matter of him not thinking about it and going out there and playing.

Paul, who played 32 minutes Friday, had two baskets in a 9-0 fourth-quarter run for New Orleans.

"I could explode off my right and left foot a little bit more today. It's just a process," said Paul, who had 12 points and 16 assists in the first meeting with the Rockets. "Hopefully, I feel better (Saturday) night also."

Tyson Chandler continues to play well in his first season with Hornets after spending his first five with the Chicago Bulls. Chandler had 16 points and matched a season high with 18 rebounds for his fourth double-double in his last five games.

The Hornets have recently played well in home games - winning seven of their last eight - but have struggled on the road, losing 10 of their last 11 and are 6-15 overall. Houston is 16-5 at home.

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