ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard might be regarded as the best center in the NBA by the end of this season, but Yao Ming let him know that debate still has a ways to go before it's settled.
Yao, Houston's 7-foot-6 All-Star, outplayed Howard in nearly every phase Saturday night, scoring 22 points and taking down 13 rebounds while carrying a tired Houston Rockets team to a 100-95 victory over Howard and the Orlando Magic.
The Rockets got 17 points each from Tracy McGrady and Rafer Alston, and 11 apiece from Ron Artest and Carl Landry. Houston shot 54 percent in the second half to break open a close contest and win for the fourth time in the last five games.
"We did what we wanted to do offensively," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "If we get the ball into Yao, it opens up a lot of things. He has such an impact on the game."
Yao, who missed a game earlier this week with a sore foot, said he was trying to take up the slack for McGrady, who still doesn't appear to be moving well after offseason knee surgery.
"Tracy did so much for our team last year when I was out so I'm trying to pay him back," Yao said.
Yao hit nine of 15 shots from the field and made all four free throws while working almost exclusively in the lane and putting Howard in serious foul trouble. The Magic center played only seven minutes in the first half when he had three fouls. He picked up his fourth foul a minute into the second half and was tentative the rest of the way in defending the interior of the Orlando defense.
"He's a tough guy to guard," Howard said. "He's very gifted, he shoots the ball extremely well and that sets up everything else in his game. I learn a lot every time I play him."
Orlando had a few opportunities to separate itself from Houston in the second half, but couldn't find a hot hand. The Magic shot just 31.7 percent (13 of 41) in the last two periods and couldn't sustain a modest 82-79 lead they held with 8 minutes left.
The Magic made only three field goals the rest of the way, the last a meaningless 3-pointer by Rashard Lewis with 2 seconds left.
"I don't think we made more mistakes than they did, we just shot the ball very poorly, particularly in the second half," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "When they made defensive mistakes and left people open, we didn't make them pay."
Jameer Nelson led Orlando with 21 points and six assists, and Lewis added 18 points, but the Magic shot only 40.7 percent.
Howard had three fouls in the first half and got his fourth less than a minute into the third period in trying to defend Yao. Howard finished with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Both sides had trouble sustaining much offense in the second half, until the Rockets' Ron Artest hit a 17-foot jumper that gave Houston a 94-88 lead with 3:33 left. McGrady's free throw with 1:08 left made it 97-90.
There were 11 lead changes and six ties in the third quarter alone when Houston's four point lead at 73-69 was the biggest advantage either side could muster. Howard made a layup with 7 seconds left to cut it to 73-71 starting the fourth quarter.
Howard had three fouls and played only 7 minutes in the first half, but the Magic still managed to take a 53-51 lead thanks to a surprising contribution from his backup, Adonal Foyle.
Foyle, seeing his first action this season, had four points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 13 minutes in the first half. Lewis and Nelson added 12 apiece for the Magic, who were down 25-15 late in the first quarter.
Yao carried the Rockets in the first half, taking advantage of Howard's foul problems to score 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. McGrady had 11 points, including three three-pointers, but the rest of the Rockets were just 11-of-30 from the field.
Magic F Hedo Turkoglu sat out the game because of the flu. Keith Bogans got his first start and scored five points in Turkoglu's place. ... Orlando has lost seven straight home games to Houston. ... McGrady has never lost in Orlando, since being traded from the Magic to Houston in 2003 .... Houston G Brent Barry is 1-for-9 from the field in his last three games.
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