- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The Houston Rockets are tops in Texas and the Southwest Division once again.

Luis Scola dropped in the winning layup with 11.2 seconds left after a bullet pass from Yao Ming, and the Rockets rallied in the fourth to wrest first place in the division from the San Antonio Spurs in an 87-85 victory Sunday.

Ron Artest scored 24 as Houston won its fourth straight to reclaim the top spot in the division for the first time since Christmas.

Tim Duncan scored 23 points for the Spurs, who watched its longtime grip as the No. 2 team in West disappear when Matt Bonner’s 3-pointer at the buzzer clanked off the rim.

Scola finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds for Houston, which trailed by five midway through the fourth before storming back.

Tony Parker had 22 points and 12 assists but missed a tough 7-footer with 2.9 seconds left with San Antonio trailing by one.

Houston took a half-game lead in the Southwest with the victory, ousted their in-state rivals as the West’s second-best team for the first time since Jan. 19.

Yao scored 13 points and got the last of his eight assists on the pass to Scola underneath the basket for the game-winner. Yao was open at the top of the key and passed up his own shot attempt to dish to Scola.

Ime Udoka scored 16 off the bench for the Spurs and scored nine consecutive points in the fourth when it looked like San Antonio was pulling away. But Houston rallied back with a 10-2 run before a seesaw finish.

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 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 Tracy 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 to re-emerge as a second-seed contender in the West.

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 stretched 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.

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 airball, sank a 3-pointer and hit a jumper to put San Antonio ahead by five.

Aaron Brooks hit a 16-footer with 1:21 left to reclaim the lead for Houston.

Notes:@ 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.

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