Rockets take first place from Spurs
The Houston Rockets have lost Tracy McGrady, traded away their starting point guard and changed their starting lineup 17 times this season.
And with 10 games left, they're the new No. 2 in the Western Conference.
Knocking the Spurs from first place in the Southwest Division for the first time since January, Houston capped a furious fourth-quarter rally when Yao Ming fired a perfect pass to Luis Scola underneath with 11.9 seconds left to stun San Antonio 87-85 on Sunday.
Ron Artest scored 24 as Houston won its fourth straight and headed to Utah with a half-game division lead over the Spurs. Not since Christmas have the Rockets enjoyed at least a share of first place.
"I would say it's been a surprising climb to first," Rockets guard Shane Battier said. "We've had so much ... just melees this year with all the injuries we've had and lineup shuffles and trades. I don't know that too many people thought we would be here today."
Tim Duncan scored 23 points and Tony Parker had 22 and 12 assists for the Spurs, who had appeared to start pulling away midway through the fourth before the Rockets embarked on a 10-2 run.
Parker tried to put the Spurs back ahead but misfired on a tough 7-footer with 2.9 seconds left. Matt Bonner clanked a 3-pointer off an in-bounds pass with 0.3 seconds on the clock that wouldn't have counted anyway.
Houston executed much better. The jewel came on Scola's game-winner, when Yao stood at the top of the key, raised the ball over his head as though he was going to shoot, then whipped the ball to Scola cutting toward the basket.
Yao said he thought he was going to shoot before seeing Scola at the last second.
"It was my fault," Duncan said. "He popped to the top. I didn't see anybody rotate to him, and I just kind of half rotated to him. Thought he was shooting the ball and turned to block out and it went right by my head. It was just another mental mistake on my part."
Yao finished with 13 points and eight assists. Scola had 19 points and 17 rebounds, scoring five in the final 30 seconds.
"You got to give Luis credit for being open and cutting to the open area," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said.
While the Los Angeles Lakers are poised to claim the top spot in the West - they're the only team in the conference to clinch a postseason spot thus far - slotting the other seven playoff teams figures to go down to the end.
San Antonio had been the second-best in the West for more than two months, though their lead was hardly ever safe. The Spurs, Denver, New Orleans, Portland and Utah are now all within three games of Houston.
The Rockets have made their surge without McGrady, who had season-ending surgery on his left knee nearly a month ago.
Since McGrady's last game on Feb. 9 - when the Rockets were 4 1/2 games back of San Antonio - Houston has won 16 of 20 and now trails only the Lakers in the West. The Rockets play the Jazz on Tuesday before hosting the Lakers on Saturday.
"We know the standings change hourly," Battier said. "So it doesn't really mean much right now."
The Rockets led 51-47 at halftime behind 13 points from Artest, who then scored six of the first eight points in the third to stretch the lead to nine. The Spurs answered with a 7-0 run in the final 1:39 to cut Houston' lead to one entering the fourth.
Ime Udoka's fastbreak layup with 8:46 remaining tied it at 70 for the first time since late in the second quarter. He then cleaned up Parker's air ball, sank a 3-pointer and hit a jumper to put San Antonio ahead by five. Udoka finished with 16.
But Aaron Brooks capped Houston's 10-2 run with a 16-footer with 1:21 left for an 82-81 lead. Scola scored the rest for the Rockets.
The Spurs have lost three of four, and Duncan said this one was big.
"It's huge, especially with the race as close as it is, and as close as (the Rockets) are to us," he said. "Obviously, we came in here knowing the importance of this game. Just wished it could have bounced a couple of different ways for us."
Mason missed San Antonio's first free throw try, drawing some noticeable groans from the crowd. It was six consecutive missed foul shots in the final 2:32 against Boston on Friday that doomed the Spurs in a 80-77 loss. ... Spurs F Matt Bonner, who has started consistently since December, came off the bench behind Kurt Thomas. Bonner entered the game ranked third in 3-point percentage but has hit just 2 of his last 11 from beyond the arc.