New Orleans/Oklahoma City 87, Houston 74

HOUSTON, Feb. 3 (AP)-- Rafer Alston and Desmond Mason squared off near midcourt in the first quarter, shouting at each other after Mason's hard foul on Tracy McGrady.

After McGrady went 1-for-2 from the line, Alston and Mason kept bickering until referee Sean Corbin ejected them.

The confrontation was the perfect fit for a defensive-minded game Saturday night

Devin Brown had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists to lead the New Orleans Hornets to an 87-74 victory over the bad-shooting Houston Rockets.

Tyson Chandler had 11 points and 12 rebounds, Chris Paul had 12 points with nine assists, and the Hornets won for the ninth time in 13 games.

"It was an ugly one,'' said Chandler, "but we'll take it.''

Paul shot 4-of-12 in his third game back after missing 17 because of a sprained right ankle. He was close enough to hear Alston and Mason arguing after Mason fouled McGrady with 4:07 left in the opening quarter.

"It's just the heat of the moment,'' Paul said. "Some things were said that were uncalled for and I support Desmond in the fullest.''

The tension began after Alston stole the ball from Mason and found McGrady trailing on the fast break. Mason slapped McGrady's arm and McGrady hit the floor, landing on his left wrist.

As McGrady clutched his wrist and prepared to shoot free throws, Alston and Mason faced off, each drawing a technical foul from Corbin. Alston and Mason were still talking as McGrady shot his free throws and Corbin had seen enough.

"It was an exchange of words,'' Alston said. "Words led to more words, words got out of hand, words that you can't say on television.''

Mason did not speak to the media after the game.

Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said both players should've known better.

"It's inexplicable,'' Van Gundy said, "that it was more important to get the last word in, then it was thinking about your team's needs.''

After Alston and Mason left the court, McGrady went to the bench to get his wrist taped by trainer Keith Jones. McGrady didn't think Mason's foul was excessive.

"I didn't think anything of it,'' McGrady said. "It was a hard NBA foul. I was cool with it. I'm sure he didn't try to hurt me.''

McGrady came back to score 18 points for the Rockets, who had a four-game winning streak snapped. Houston shot 37 percent (29-of-78) and matched season lows for points in a first quarter (15) and first half (30).

The Hornets also outrebounded the Rockets 49-36 and scored 20 points off Houston's 12 turnovers.

"I told them before the game that it would be an ugly game,'' New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. "It was, but I'll take a win in any game.''

McGrady missed five of his first six shots, part of the Rockets' 9-for-33 start, and the Hornets built a 30-24 lead.

But New Orleans, the league's lowest-scoring team, was hardly rolling. The Hornets shot 32 percent (12-of-38) in the first half and led only 33-30 at the break.

Paul had only two points at halftime, but hit a 3-pointer and drove for a layup early in the third quarter to preserve the Hornets' lead. Brown and Rasual Butler added 3-pointers to put New Orleans up 48-37.

"We were really focused and our guys didn't lose their focus when our shots weren't falling in the first half,'' Scott said.

The Rockets missed six of nine shots and coughed up four turnovers over the next six minutes as the Hornets opened a 61-43 lead.

Brown hit a jumper from the free throw line and Jannero Pargo sank a 3-pointer early in the fourth to stretch New Orleans' lead to 70-51.

John Lucas nailed a 3-pointer and Bonzi Wells drove for a dunk during a 9-3 Houston burst, but Paul hit two free throws with 4:28 left to push the Hornets' lead to 75-60. Brown made two 3-pointers on the Hornets' next two possessions, prompting fans to head for the exits.

The Rockets avoided the team record for lowest point total (66) when Steve Novak hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 remaining to make it 82-68.

Even though Houston had won four in a row coming into the game, Van Gundy knew his team had not been playing its best.

"Sometimes, you're getting results that you like even though the play isn't what you'd like,'' Van Gundy said. "We're forgetting how hard it is to win.''

Notes: The Rockets were outrebounded for only the 16th time this season. ... The Hornets' last six opponents have shot 42 percent or worse. ... The Hornets have won five of the last six games against Houston, including the last four in the Toyota Center.

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