McGrady, Rockets continue to rack up wins, grab 18th straight

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Houston Rockets' winning streak is getting serious. So is their march to the top of the Western Conference.

Tracy McGrady scored 41 points Saturday night and the Rockets stretched their winning streak to 18 games with a 106-96 victory over the New Orleans Hornets.

The Rockets have won their last nine games by double digits and moved into a tie with the Hornets in the overall conference standings. Houston, 13-15 in mid-December, closed within one game of San Antonio in the Southwest Division.

With two wins in three meetings with the Hornets this season, the Rockets have the third-best record in the conference. Only the Los Angeles Lakers and Spurs are ahead of Houston and that was motivating McGrady more than the winning streak before the game.

"The third spot," said McGrady. "Once I heard that this morning, I was like, 'OK. Let's get it done.'"

The Rockets have the NBA's longest victory streak since the Lakers won 19 in a row in the 1999-2000 season. Houston became just the seventh team in history to win 18 or more consecutive games -- five of the previous six won the NBA championship.

McGrady said bluntly that the Rockets' streak still has no significance. His mind is already preparing for the postseason, where he's winless in six series.

"Our concentration and focus is really all about the playoffs," he said. "We've had pretty good runs in the regular season. Not quite like this, but, this is a team that's won 50 games in the past. It's all about the playoffs with us.

"The streak is great. We'll make a little history," he said. "But it really doesn't mean anything."

McGrady certainly played like there was plenty on the line Saturday night.

He hit 17 of 27 shots, reaching 40 points for the fourth time this season. The Rockets also made a season-high 14 3-pointers, improving to 6-0 since Yao Ming went out with a foot injury.

"Now, the mental challenge is there are no letdowns as we continue on," coach Rick Adelman said. "We've got to stay on the same level."

Chris Paul had 37 points and 11 assists for the Hornets, who had won five of their last six.

Rafer Alston added 20 points for Houston, which has won 12 consecutive games at the Toyota Center, the franchise's longest home-court streak since 1993-94, the Rockets' first championship season.

Houston plays New Jersey at home on Monday night, the first of three games against Eastern Conference teams with losing records. The win streak could easily reach 21 heading into next Sunday's showdown with the Lakers in Houston.

The Rockets are trying their best not to get ahead of themselves.

"Honestly, we're just happy to be winning games and trying to climb into the playoff race," said Shane Battier, who hit two 3-pointers and grabbed 10 rebounds. "At this point, the numbers are a little academic. That's not what's important, that's not what's driving us now. We're striving to play good basketball and that's the focus of the team right now."

Both teams were short-handed on the front line.

David West, the Hornets' second-leading scorer and rebounder, missed his third straight game with a sprained left ankle. Rookie Carl Landry, a key reserve during the Rockets' winning streak, sat out with a bruised knee.

The Rockets trailed 23-20 after the first quarter, then took command with a 14-0 run midway through the second.

McGrady sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key early in the spurt, then soared for a two-handed, alley-oop dunk off a long feed from Alston. McGrady hit another 3-pointer from the corner to put Houston up 40-28, then nodded and screamed at the cheering fans before running back down the court.

"Tracy McGrady was fantastic," said New Orleans coach Byron Scott. "Everything we tried to do against him just didn't work."

The rest of the half turned into an entertaining 3-point shootout -- 11 of the last 12 field goals came from long range.

Peja Stojakovic and Paul ended Houston's run with back-to-back 3s, but Steve Novak answered with a 3 from the corner. Morris Peterson sank a pair of 3s before Battier and Alston each hit one in the final minute to give the Rockets a 59-46 lead at the break.

The teams hit 16 3-pointers in the second quarter and 18 in the first half.

Paul had 11 points and four assists in the third quarter to keep New Orleans close. But McGrady's jumper over Peterson in the final minute of the quarter gave the Rockets an 81-72 lead and gave him at least 30 points for the 11th time this season.

McGrady started the final quarter with consecutive jumpers over the 6-foot-1 Jannero Pargo and 6-8 rookie Julian Wright. Luther Head and Battier tacked on 3-pointers to stretch Houston's lead to 91-74.

The Rockets have won 27 of their last 30 games, the best record in the NBA since the start of 2008.

Game notes
The Hornets and Rockets were meeting for the first time since the Feb. 21 trade that brought Bobby Jackson to Houston for Mike James and Bonzi Wells. Jackson scored two points with five assists, James had three points and Wells sat out with an injured Achilles' tendon. ... The Rockets have had at least 20 assists in every game during their winning streak. ... The Rockets have made 10 or more 3-pointers in five of their last seven games. ... Paul reached 30 points for the ninth time this season.