HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets will have to learn how to win without Tracy McGrady.

With their superstar sidelined three weeks with back spasms, the Rockets struggled down the stretch on Saturday night, losing to the New Orleans Hornets 91-84.

P.J. Brown had 18 points and 13 rebounds and Chris Paul sank two runners in the final minute to carry the Hornets to their first road win of the season.

The Rockets found out before the game that McGrady could be out for the rest of November after hurting his back during Friday’s practice.

After a slow start, the Rockets managed to overcome McGrady’s absence, building an eight-point lead in the second half. But they sorely missed him down the stretch, as the Hornets closed with a 17-2 run.

Paul finished with 15 points and David West added 12 for New Orleans.

Yao Ming had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and tied a career high with seven blocks. Derek Anderson added 17 points and Rafer Alston had 15.

Houston looked like it would survive its first game without McGrady, taking an 82-74 lead on Anderson’s 3-pointer with 6:09 to go.

Brown, guarded by Yao, then scored seven points early in the deciding run and gave the Hornets the lead for good on a jumper over Yao with 1:59 to go.

The Rockets missed eight of their last nine shots. Their only basket was a turnaround by Yao with 1:14 left.

Paul answered with a running one-hander with 53 seconds left and had another one with 15 seconds remaining for an 89-84 lead.

Early on, the Rockets missed McGrady’s defense as much as his scoring.

The Hornets sank nine of their first 13 shots and led 19-8 midway through the first quarter.

Van Gundy tinkered with lineups to generate some offense and finally found one that worked. With Houston trailing 34-24, Yao and Anderson joined reserves Stromile Swift, Jon Barry and rookie Luther Head on the floor and the quintet outscored the Hornets 20-11.

Yao secured his 86th career double-double in the third quarter then was at the center of the game’s ugliest moment in the final minute.

Desmond Mason drove to the basket and was blocked by Yao. Mason dove to the floor for the loose ball and Yao went down on top of him, earning a jump ball.

When Mason got up, he flipped over Yao, and the two shouted at each other. The players on the floor crowded together and Juwan Howard shoved Rasual Butler.

Referee Tom Washington pulled Mason out of the scrum and tempers cooled as both coaches came onto the floor. Mason and Howard got technical fouls.

At first, the incident didn’t seem to faze Yao. He won the ensuing jump ball with Mason, then got two blocks in the fourth quarter to match his career high.

But Brown began dominating Yao late, hitting two medium-range jumpers over him as the Hornets took control.

Notes: The Hornets beat the Rockets 89-88 in the preseason, rallying from 22 points down. … Former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich watched Saturday’s game from courtside and got a standing ovation when he was introduced. Tomjanovich left as coach of the Lakers last February, citing health reasons. He’s been working as a scout for the Lakers since the start of this season. … The Rockets had an eight-game regular-season winning streak snapped.

AP-ES-11-05-05 2333EST


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