Despite missing their top scorer, the Houston Rockets came up just short against one of the best teams in the Western Conference in their last game. The Rockets hope to have Tracy McGrady back on Saturday when they try to avoid losing their fourth straight game as they visit the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
McGrady hurt his left knee in the first half of Houston's 97-92 loss to Orlando on Wednesday, and finished with a season-low three points on 1-of-10 shooting in 18 minutes. The Rockets (12-14) captain was diagnosed with a sore left knee and held out of Thursday's game against Denver, giving him extra time to recover for this contest.
McGrady is averaging team highs of 23.8 points and 5.2 assists, and he has been instrumental to Houston's success.
Since McGrady joined the club before the 2004-05 season, the Rockets are 11-42 when the two-time scoring champ doesn't play. Houston has lost 12 of 14 games McGrady has missed since the start of last season, including Thursday's 112-111 double-overtime loss to the Pacific Division-leading Nuggets.
The game featured 28 lead changes and 16 ties, and the Rockets scored the final seven points of regulation to force overtime. In the second overtime, Yao Ming hit two free throws with 4.5 seconds left to give Houston a one-point lead, but Denver's Anthony Carter hit a 15-foot floater with 0.8 seconds remaining for the game winner.
The loss was the Rockets' third straight, and fifth in six games.
"We hung tough, dug deep inside and found some energy to find a double-overtime game,'' said Rafer Alston, who had 18 points. "This one was tough. We were right to end and they hit a big shot.''
Yao finished with 26 points and a season-high 19 rebounds in a career-high 52 minutes, and is averaging 23.5 points and 15.8 boards in his last four games. Yao had 20 points and 12 boards in his only game against the Bulls last season, a 101-100 home win on Nov. 16.
The Rockets swept both games from Chicago last season, and have won 12 of the last 16 meetings.
Houston has won five of six games over the Bulls since McGrady's first year with the club, losing the only game the seven-time All-Star did not play. McGrady is averaging 28.6 points in his last five games against Chicago.
The Rockets, who have lost five of their last six road games, have won four straight at the United Center by an average of 17.5 points.
The Bulls (9-15) lost to Boston 107-82 on Friday, and have alternated wins and losses in their last eight games.
Chicago, which is in last place in the Central Division, shot just 35.5 percent from the floor as it fell behind by as many as 22 points in the first half. The Bulls are the second-lowest scoring team in the league (91.7 points per game) and are shooting a NBA-worst 41.1 percent from the floor.
"You hope for more,'' Chicago coach Scott Skiles said, adding that he would look at the tape to make sure his team didn't give up. "It just seemed like we gave in to it a little bit. And against a team like that they are going to sense that, (and) you're going to be in trouble.''
Ben Gordon had a team-high 19 points on Friday, and averaged 30.5 points in the two losses against the Rockets last season.
Rookie Aaron Gray had 14 points against the Celtics to reach a season high for his second consecutive game. Gray is filling in for the injured Ben Wallace, who missed his second consecutive game with bone spurs in his left foot.
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