Rockets' hopes fades, Jazz toughen for stretch


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Utah Jazz picked the right time to end
a three-game losing streak.

Getting ready to play the top three teams in the Western
Conference and coming off one of its worst losses of the season,
Utah took advantage of some poor shooting and beat the struggling
Houston Rockets 94-73 Wednesday night.

``It was huge because we're heading into a tough schedule and
you want to get that feeling of winning back before we play these
tough teams,'' said Matt Harpring, who led the Jazz with 23 points
and eight rebounds. ``We've lost some games that we should have won
but that happens. We broke out of it and we're ready to move on.''

Andrei Kirilenko added 15 points and three blocks, and Karl
Malone had 10 points and seven rebounds in three quarters as the
Jazz recovered from an embarrassing 128-102 loss Tuesday night at
Golden State.

``We're still there. We've showed we can play with the best
around,'' said Kirilenko, who got a few stitches after the game for
a cut he sustained when he banged his chin on the floor while
diving for a loose ball in the final minute. ``We're ready to fight
and we will fight.''

The Rockets might not have a chance to fight much more.
Houston's playoff hopes continued to drop after its fourth loss in
six games. The Rockets trail eighth-place Phoenix, a winner over
Dallas, by 2 1/2 games.

Greg Ostertag, who finished with 11 rebounds, and Calbert
Cheaney were the only Utah starters to play in the fourth quarter.

Utah is bound for a 20th straight postseason and can finish no
worse than seventh in the Western Conference, but also will have a
difficult time moving up. The Jazz close out the season against
Dallas, San Antonio and Sacramento.

``We needed to get some kind of rhythm going into the
playoffs,'' Malone said. ``We're locked in at seven so we know
where we're at. But we've got some things to work on.

``We were right there in the thick of things, then we lost three
in a row. To get a win like this is very important for us.''

The Rockets, who tied the franchise low in shooting percentage
and points by shooting 29.5 percent in an 81-66 loss at Portland on
Tuesday, nearly set even lower marks Wednesday. The Rockets avoided
new lows by going 10-for-23 and scoring 27 points in the fourth
quarter, but were still just 28-for-89 (31.5 percent) overall.

``I really can't explain it. We just can't put it in the basket.
We just can't score,'' acting coach Larry Smith said. ``Our main
guys are getting good looks and we're coming up with zero.''

James Posey and Maurice Taylor led Houston with 10 points each.
Yao Ming finished with just six points and five rebounds, both well
below his averages of 13.7 and 8.3.

Houston was just 5-for-23 in the first quarter, with only one
field goal, a layup by Kelvin Cato, that wasn't a 3-pointer.

``Yesterday we did a few things well,'' Yao said. ``Tonight, I
don't think we did anything well.''

The Rockets were just 10 for 44 from the field in the first half
and trailed 42-28 at the break. Houston made a few early runs in
the third period and got within nine, but unraveled as it grew
frustrated down the stretch.

Steve Francis was called for a technical foul when he kicked the
ball into the crowd after it crossed the line for a backcourt
violation. The Rockets had pulled within single digits for the
first time in the second half on a 3-pointer by Posey, but Houston
never got closer than 10 again.

Yao cut Utah's lead to 50-40 midway through the third quarter,
but the Jazz responded with an 11-2 run. Ostertag started it with a
two-handed dunk over Yao, Malone hit a free throw and Harpring
scored the next eight points, including a dunk on a long pass from

The Jazz were off and running.

Coach Jerry Sloan emptied the bench in the fourth quarter, and
Scott Padgett scored 11 of his 13 points.

Game notes
The Rockets made just two of their first 12 shots and
didn't score until Cuttino Mobley hit a 3-pointer with 8:11 left in
the period, cutting Utah's lead to 11-3. Yao missed a pair of free
throws and was blocked by Ostertag during the drought. ... The
Rockets were nearly as bad from the free throw line, going 2-for-9,
and trailed 24-17 after one period. ... Malone got his 3,500th
career offensive rebound in the second quarter.