Houston 91, Milwaukee 83

MILWAUKEE, Feb. 2 (AP) -- China's biggest basketball star scored 12 points and struggled on defense. The country's fresh new face shot 1-for-10 from the field.

Not exactly what the 200 million people tuning in hoped to see.

The second edition of Yao vs. Yi didn't quite live up to its billing as the "Chinese Super Bowl,'' as Yao Ming's Houston Rockets beat Yi Jianlian and the Milwaukee Bucks 91-83 on Saturday despite relatively quiet nights by both of China's biggest basketball exports.

"Both of us struggled a little bit, but we got the win,'' Yao said.

Yao did manage a team-high 12 rebounds for Houston after getting into early foul trouble and tweaking his ankle just before halftime.

Yi was banged-up as well, scoring six points after hurting his shoulder early in the game. But the Bucks rookie didn't blame his poor shooting on his injury and tried to keep the significance of Saturday's game in perspective.

"As far as we're concerned, in the grand scope of things, it's another regular-season game,'' Yi said, speaking through a translator.

But even Yao, the far more experienced player of the two, knew the game was a big deal.

"It is big,'' Yao said. "To be honest, I was a little bit nervous last night. ... It's like a playoff game or something.''

Yao and Yi's first meeting on an NBA court, Nov. 9 in Houston, was watched by an audience estimated between 100 and 200 million people in China.

A similar audience was expected for Saturday's game, which was being broadcast live by three stations in greater China and on tape delay by a fourth. Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak dubbed it the "Chinese Super Bowl.''

The game's high profile wasn't lost on the pair's American teammates.

"Two hundred million people watching -- that's when you've got to bring your 'A game,''' said Tracy McGrady, who led the Rockets with 33 points. "That's amazing that there's double the people watching a regular season NBA game as the Super Bowl.''

The Bucks decided to make Saturday's game into an early Chinese New Year party, featuring Chinese musical performers in the stadium's atrium area before the game and adding Chinese fare to the concession stands. Signs were posted saying "Happy New Year'' in Chinese and English.

"For the people of China, it's a big game for them because it's their Super Bowl,'' said Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who led Milwaukee with 21 points. "For us, it's just another basketball game.''

Yao and Yi embraced and posed for photographs at midcourt during the pregame shootaround on Saturday and both took questions from a small but eager horde of Chinese reporters before the game.

The buildup was natural, given that both players hold such a high profile in such a large country. And it didn't hurt that they both put on a pretty good show the first time around.

Yao had 28 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots as the Rockets beat the Bucks 104-88 in Houston Nov. 9. Yi held his own against his more-heralded countryman, scoring 19 points.

But overseas fans looking for an offensive outburst by either Chinese star this time around might have been fiddling with their remotes by the second half.

Yi never found a shooting groove and Yao got off to a rough start, committing two early turnovers and heading to the bench after picking up his second foul with 5:23 left in the first quarter. He didn't return until the 7:22 mark in the second quarter.

Yao then tweaked his ankle just before halftime, landing awkwardly after being fouled by Yi on a dunk attempt. Yao stayed in the game to hit one of two free throws, then went on to score nine points and add nine rebounds in the second half.

But Yao didn't lose his sense of humor despite the uneven performance, joking after the game that it was too cold for him in Milwaukee and wondering why Yi's translator wasn't translating his answers to Chinese reporters into English.

"You didn't translate mine because I don't pay you, right?'' Yao said.

McGrady provided all the offense the Rockets needed, hitting several jumpers to hold off a late Bucks rally.

The Bucks kept it close deep into the fourth quarter, as Bogut had a chance for a three-point play after making a hook shot over Yao and getting fouled. The shot cut Houston's lead to 78-74 with 2:54 remaining, but Bogut missed the free throw and McGrady hit a 19-foot jumper on the other end to put Houston ahead by seven.

McGrady then hit another long jumper to put Houston up 83-74 with 1:36 left. Milwaukee's Bobby Simmons hit three 3-pointers in the final 44.5 seconds, but the Bucks' rally fell short.

Milwaukee has lost three straight, including a 43-point loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday. Houston has won three straight.

Notes: Bucks forward Desmond Mason scored six points in his first game since having surgery on his left thumb Dec. 22. ... Michael Redd missed his fourth straight game with a left knee strain. ... Bucks rookie guard Ramon Sessions will be out six weeks after breaking his left hand in practice on Friday. ... Former Milwaukee preps star Carl Landry scored two points for Houston, but former Marquette standout Steve Novak did not dress after the team did not list him on its active or inactive list.

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