MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- The return of Yao Ming wasn't enough to revive the struggling Rockets.
Chucky Atkins scored 19 points in his first start for Memphis and the Grizzlies defeated Houston 86-77 on Monday night in Yao's first game in more than a month.
It was only the 15th time this season Yao and leading-scorer Tracy McGrady played together. But the rare pairing wasn't enough for the Rockets to maintain an early burst. They let the deficit slip to double-digits in the second half, leading to their third straight loss.
"It's good to have most of our guys back healthy," McGrady said. "What we need to concentrate on is that every day we step on that basketball court as a team, we improve individually, and we improve as a team, offensively, defensively. We just need to make strides for improvement every day."
Atkins, released from the Washington Wizards, signed with Memphis a week ago. Inserted into the starting lineup after four games coming off the bench, he responded by hitting his first two shots of the game.
"They asked me this morning what I thought about starting," Atkins said. "I told them at some point in time because that's what they wanted me to do when I got here."
Yao, who missed 21 games because of a foot injury that required surgery, had 15 points and eight rebounds. McGrady led the Rockets with 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Juwan Howard finished with 18 on 8-of-11 shooting.
The win was Memphis coach Mike Fratello's 638th of his career, moving him ahead of Chuck Daly for 17th place in all-time coaching victories.
Memphis held a 15-point lead early in the fourth and maintained the double-digit margin through much of the rest of the game.
McGrady's 3-pointer with 25 seconds left got Houston within 82-77, but Eddie Jones and Atkins hit two free throws each to seal it.
"It's more important for me to know what [the other] guys like to do on the court as opposed to me just going out there and trying to score," Atkins said of his first start.
"I was able to come out and make a couple of shots early and get it going. For the most part, it's just setting the table for guys and trying to keep us as organized as possible."
Miller, who had the task of guarding McGrady part of the game, said the Grizzlies were just trying to make the Rockets' All-Star work for his shots.
"That's the whole key with guys like that because they're going to get points," said Miller, who played alongside McGrady in Orlando, and is still a close friend. "It's a matter of making them make tough shots. He's capable of doing that, and he made some tough shots tonight. But all-in-all, we did a pretty good job."
Yao's return seemed to inspire the Rockets early. The 7-foot-6 center hit his first three shots, McGrady was successful from the wings, and Houston shot 62.5 percent in the first quarter.
But despite the Rockets' shooting and Gasol's ineffectiveness inside, missing his first three shots against Howard, Memphis stayed close. The Grizzlies finally took the lead midway through the second quarter.
"I thought our bench played substandard," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We had a good start, and then our bench came in and gave up the lead."
The Grizzlies would carry a 43-39 lead into the half, led by Atkins' 13 points, including a 3-pointer with 31 second left in the half.
McGrady led the Rockets with 11 points as Houston shot 52 percent in the half.
The Grizzlies got a surprise spark from little-used Jake Tsakalidis, who hit all three of his first-half shots and had a couple of blocks on Yao.
Memphis would maintain the lead in the third, extending it to 67-52 with just under two minutes left in the period on Miller's 3-pointer and Gasol's dunk. The Grizzlies carried a 68-55 lead into the final quarter.
Howard received a technical in the first quarter when he got tangled up with Gasol. ...Houston is 0-9 against the Southwest Division. ...Of the Rockets' 77 points, 56 came from their starting frontline of Yao, McGrady and Howard. ...Gasol's double-double was
his team-leading 17th of the season.