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Tracy McGrady scored 24 of his 40 in the second half of Sunday's win.
McGrady had 40 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in his return, and the Rockets made a late surge to snap a three-game losing streak with a 112-106 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night.
Yao scored 18 points, while Luther Head also had 18 and broke a fourth-quarter tie with back-to-back 3-pointers that began a decisive 11-2 run. Houston, which clinched a playoff berth nearly two weeks ago, showed the type of late-game tenacity that's a requirement in the postseason - even while its two best players fight to get back to full strength in the regular season's final six games.
"It's very important to get it going,'' McGrady said. "It's coming down to the last few games before these playoffs. We want to be a good-executing team. You don't want to wait too late. ... We're not about trying to catch Utah out here. We're just trying to get better.''
Yao and McGrady missed the Rockets' loss to Portland on Friday to rest their injuries, but both returned impressively as Houston pulled within a half-game of the Jazz for the Western Conference's fourth-best record. The Rockets' three recent losses were at home, casting doubt on their ability to survive the rigors of a playoff season.
And even McGrady and Yao share those concerns. Neither of the Rockets' superstars appeared limited by injury, though Yao spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench.
"Actually, the best chance has slipped out of our hands already, in those last three home games that we lost,'' Yao said. "We had the chance to have home-court advantage in the playoffs, but we probably lost it. ... In the second half, we started playing defense and got better.''
Houston swept its three-game season series with the Kings, including two victories at Arco Arena, despite failing to make a field goal in the final 4:42. McGrady still hasn't recorded a triple-double in three seasons with the Rockets, but he hit two free throws in the final minute to ensure his first 40-point game since Jan. 16.
"I thought the effort was there, and that was a positive to take out of it,'' Kings coach Eric Musselman said. "We played Houston three close games, two overtime games. They're obviously one of the better teams in the league.''
McGrady and Yao scored 16 points apiece in the first half, but Sacramento took a 12-point lead in the second quarter with at least six points apiece from four reserves.
Musselman continued his expanded use of youngsters Ronnie Price, Justin Williams and Garcia - mostly at the expense of Mike Bibby and Brad Miller. Bibby scored just 11 points, and Miller had four as Sacramento abandoned its aggressive offense in the second half.
"We settled for a lot of jump shots in the fourth quarter, and let them get offensive rebounds that we needed,'' said Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who had 15 points. "We definitely could have done some things to help ourselves.''
Houston's Bonzi Wells, who spent last season in Sacramento and was the Kings' best player in their first-round playoff loss to San Antonio, got a mix of cheers and boos when he entered the game in the first quarter. He was injured during the Rockets' first trip to Sacramento in January.
Wells botched his free agency last summer when he turned down a long-term, $38.5 million offer from the Kings. Every NBA opening soon filled, and Wells had to settle for a comparatively tiny deal in Houston, where he has flopped.
During a quiet moment in the first quarter, a financially inaccurate fan shouted "Thirty-two million, Bonzi!''
Notes: Wells, who went scoreless in four minutes, had been inactive for 18 games before playing in the Rockets' loss to Portland two days earlier. ... Kings F Kenny Thomas missed his third straight game with a broken toe. ... McGrady rolled his right ankle while driving the lane less than 8 minutes into the game. He was down on the court for a long moment, but stayed in the game.