Houston 116, Chicago 98

CHICAGO, Dec. 22 (AP) -- The Rockets' bench players showed Tracy McGrady how important they can be. Then McGrady showed those guys a thing or two.

McGrady returned to the Houston lineup and had 20 points and eight assists to lead the Rockets to a 116-98 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night.

Yao Ming had 18 points and eight rebounds but sprained his right thumb in the third quarter. X-rays were negative, and Yao retuned in the fourth quarter.

With the Bulls leading 28-27, the Rockets went on a 14-3 run in the second quarter with Yao and McGrady off the floor, to give the Rockets the lead for good.

"They did a great job. We found guys on the perimeter, we exploited their weakness on the defensive end and did a great job of getting it going,'' said McGrady. "We're starting to turn the corner if we can get the bench to play like that.''

Luther Head, a Chicago native, scored eight straight points for the Rockets during the span. He hit a 3, then went into the lane and scored on a reverse layup, and made a 3 from the right corner the next time down to give the Rockets a 41-31 lead.

Head finished with 13 points for the Rockets, and the Rockets bench outscored Chicago's 51-21.

The Bulls have lost three of their last four games and were booed throughout by the home crowd. Despite high expectations, the Bulls (9-16) have the third worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Ben Wallace would welcome personnel changes if it would help the club.

"That's one of those things that goes along with this league,'' said Wallace. "Change is not always bad. If everybody wants to be here we have to step it up and go out there and play basketball.''

McGrady, playing on a sore left knee that kept him out of Thursday's double overtime loss to Denver, sparked Houston in the third quarter with nine points and four assists.

Leading 68-61, Houston pulled away midway through the third quarter behind McGrady. After hitting a jumper, his penetration set up an open 3 for Shane Battier. Then McGrady made a nice pass to Luis Scola for a layup to make it 75-61 with 4:16 left.

"It was sore a little bit when I was doing some cutting but it loosened up. I think taping it put a little pressure there and made it feel pretty good. It was fine,'' said McGrady.

Battier was elbowed by Luol Deng near his left eye in the first quarter. After receiving six stitches, he returned in the second quarter and finished with 14 points.

Yao was also banged up during the game.

"The first quarter I jammed my little finger and then the third quarter my (thumb). So I think it wasn't my lucky day,'' said Yao.

Bonzi Wells scored 20 points for the Rockets, who won for the second time in seven games and snapped a three-game losing streak.

Kirk Hinrich led Chicago with 22 points and Deng added 21 points and seven rebounds.

"We have to do a better job of playing for each other. At times, it looks like if we are playing like we're strangers. We need to care more about each other and play for each other,'' said Wallace.

"You can't go out there and play for the fans, you can't go out there and do it for the coaches, you got to do it for each other, we got to respect each other enough to give it are all every night and until we start doing that we're always going to struggle.''

The Bulls were outrebounded 50-34. Scola led the Rockets with 11 rebounds, and added 14 points.

Notes: Wallace was back in the Chicago lineup after missing two straight games with bone spurs in his left foot. He went scoreless in 28 minutes and had five rebounds. ... Houston outrebounded Chicago 11-0 in the first eight minutes of the second quarter. ... Rockets G Steve Francis (flu) was inactive.


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