- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

HOUSTON (AP) - Yao Ming scored 22 points, Luis Scola grabbed 15 rebounds and the Houston Rockets moved within one win of the Southwest Division title with an 86-66 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Monday night.

The Rockets came in holding the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, but with the same record as San Antonio and Portland, who both played later in the night.

If the Rockets win their regular-season finale in Dallas on Wednesday, they’ll secure their first division championship since 1993-94. But in the jumbled Western Conference, Houston could also slip to fifth place _ and lose home-court advantage in the first round _ with a loss to the Mavericks.

David West scored 14 and Chris Paul had nine points and seven assists for the Hornets, who could’ve clinched the No. 6 seed in the West with a victory. New Orleans came in one game ahead of Dallas and two ahead of Utah.

While the standings remain unresolved, the outcome of Monday’s game was decided early, thanks to the Hornets’ offensive ineptitude.

The Hornets shot 35 percent (28-of-81) from the field and their 66 points were a season low. Houston also held a 46-37 rebounding edge.

Paul assisted on three straight possessions, then hit an off-balance shot on the baseline to put the Hornets up 22-17 late in the first quarter. Von Wafer swished a shot from the wing just before the buzzer to cut Houston’s deficit to three.

With Paul on the bench, James Posey scored seven points early in the second quarter to keep New Orleans in front. Houston reserves Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry then scored on consecutive drives to trigger an 18-0 spurt.

Paul returned with 5:41 left in the half, but the Rockets tacked seven more points on the lead over the next three minutes to go up 43-31. The Hornets missed 10 straight shots before West’s jumper from the free-throw line ended their 6 1/2-minute scoring drought.

The Rockets led 47-35 at the break after New Orleans went 5-for-19 from the field in the second quarter.

The Hornets missed their first six shots in the third quarter and Houston opened with a 6-0 burst to lead 53-35. Shane Battier tipped in Yao’s miss and also swatted a breakaway layup attempt by Rasual Butler, prompting one of the loudest cheers of the night.

Ron Artest drove for a one-handed dunk later in the third quarter, then smiled as he raised his arms and smacked hands with fans along the baseline. New Orleans mustered a season-low 11 points in the quarter and trailed 67-46.

Paul sat out the rest of the night and the Rockets stretched the lead to 26. Yao came out with 6:16 left after playing 32 minutes and the Rockets coasted to their sixth straight home win and 33rd of the season.

Notes:@ The Hornets have lost five of their last seven games. … The Rockets went 13-for-13 from the free-throw line. … Hornets C Tyson Chandler, out since March 16 with inflammation in his left ankle, was inactive, but coach Byron Scott was hoping to play him 20-25 minutes in Wednesday’s regular-season finale in San Antonio. “Just to get him out there and get his timing a little bit,” Scott said. … Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, had courtside seats next to Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. The Bushes live in Houston and regularly attend major sporting events in the area. During a timeout in the second quarter, Bush accepted a $100,000 check for the Bush-Clinton coastal recovery fund, money raised at a Rockets charity dinner earlier this year.

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