HOUSTON -- No matter who's in the lineup, no matter when they meet during the season, the Houston Rockets always expect a tough game against the Utah Jazz.
Yao Ming had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Rafer Alston scored 23 and the Rockets built a big lead, then hung on to beat the Jazz 108-99 on Wednesday night.
Deron Williams had 32 points and 11 assists and Ronnie Brewer had 23 points for the Jazz, who've dropped seven of their past 10 road games. Andrei Kirilenko sat out for Utah after leaving Tuesday's game against Minnesota with a right ankle injury.
Utah has also been playing without Carlos Boozer, who's expected to miss about two more weeks after knee surgery on Jan. 9.
But just as they did in a double-overtime loss to Houston on Dec. 27, the Jazz rallied from 16 points down in the third quarter to make it interesting at the end.
"It's really hard for them to give up," said Luis Scola, who had 19 points and nine rebounds for Houston. "That pretty much guarantees it's going to be a close game."
This time, Houston led 91-87 before Von Wafer sank a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:35 left in the game, his first field goal of the second half. Wafer went 3-for-5 from 3-point range and scored 21 points.
The Jazz got no closer than five after that, though Mehmet Okur missed an open 3 in the final minute that would've cut the lead to four again.
"They're always going to be tough," Alston said. "They play so hard, they play intense, they don't back down. They compete with the best of them."
The Rockets were also short-handed, playing again without Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady, who've missed most of January with injuries.
Houston went 27-for-28 from the free-throw line -- 13-for-13 in the fourth quarter -- and outrebounded Utah 43-37.
"We got down early and it put us in a tough predicament," Williams said. "We couldn't recover from it."
The Jazz didn't double-team Yao as often as many teams do, but they used every big man available to defend him. Yao went 5-for-8 from the field, but 9-for-9 from the free-throw line.
"It really wears you down, having to guard him all game," said forward Paul Millsap, who scored 20, but also got five fouls trying to stop Yao. "You pay for it at the offensive end of the court."
The Jazz played in Salt Lake City on Tuesday night and looked tired at the start, missing nine of their first 15 shots. The Rockets started 8-for-11 from the field and led 23-13.
Utah continued to shoot poorly in the second quarter and Houston stretched the margin to 16. The Jazz defense was also a step slow in the first half, leaving Houston's perimeter shooters open enough to go 8-for-14 from 3-point range.
"We didn't have the energy we needed," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "We didn't play any defense to start the game."
The Jazz cut the deficit to nine early in the third quarter, but Yao hit a free throw and Alston sank back-to-back 3-pointers to restore Houston's 16-point lead. Utah came back as its shooting improved, and Brewer's 3-pointer with 3:07 left in the third quarter trimmed the Rockets' lead to 72-66.
"The way they play, they will always have a chance to win," Scola said of the Jazz.
Utah shot 52 percent in the third quarter and trailed 80-73 heading to the fourth. Yao went to the bench with his fifth foul with 8:16 left and Houston up 85-76.
Williams sank a 3-pointer, drove for a layup and found Brewer on a fast break in a 1-minute span to cut Houston's lead to four with 2:49 to go. Rockets coach Rick Adelman called time out to get Yao back in the game.
Sloan said he didn't know Kirilenko's status for Saturday's game against Cleveland. "We'll just wait 'til next time, see what happens the next game," Sloan said. ... Artest had an MRI and bone scan on his nagging right ankle that showed improvement, but Adelman could not say when Artest would return to the lineup. "We've got to see how he's reacting, how he plays," Adelman said. ... Yao has three double-doubles in his past four games and 22 this season.