HOUSTON - Kobe Bryant was back in the Lakers’ lineup, joining Shaquille O’Neal. None of that mattered to Yao Ming.
Yao had 29 points and 11 rebounds, outplaying O’Neal to lead the Houston Rockets over Los Angeles 102-87 on Wednesday night.
The Rockets pulled away in the fourth quarter behind Yao, who scored 11 of Houston’s last 15 points in the final 6:12. He hit five free throws and three field goals, including a hook over O’Neal.
“I was very surprised how I was able to do,” Yao said. “We kept moving the ball and moving our people on defense and Shaq couldn’t catch up to it. We have to face a lot of Western Conference teams and this will be a big boost to our confidence.”
O’Neal, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, fouled out with 3:20 to play. Bryant came off the injured list and scored 14 points for the Lakers.
“We played as a team and everybody played together with great chemistry and they couldn’t get hold of what we were trying to do,” Yao said.
O’Neal didn’t concede too much to Yao.
“He made the shots, but he got the whistle, too,” O’Neal said. “He’s a big guy and has a soft touch. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to play me one-on-one, ever, ever, ever. We let this one slip away. They played with a lot of effort. We just made mistakes.”
The Rockets went ahead 73-63 late in the third quarter, and Yao got them off to a quick start in the fourth with two free throws and a jumper. Steve Francis and Jim Jackson hit 3-pointers to boost the lead to 83-69 with 9:01 to play.
Francis then hit two free throws after a flagrant foul against O’Neal, and the Rockets were up 85-70. They beat the Lakers for the second time this season.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson thought Yao played his best game in four meetings with O’Neal.
“It was a great effort from Ming down the stretch,” Jackson said.
Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy was pleased with Yao’s performance.
“We have to make adjustments throughout the game if you’re playing against the best player in the league, and he did that,” Van Gundy said. “He went with his jump hook and he drove and he spun.”
The battle between All-Star centers started with O’Neal scoring on a hook over Yao for the Lakers’ first points. Yao scored over O’Neal moments later.
Yao got more votes than O’Neal and will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star game Sunday. O’Neal has outscored Yao 116-63 in their matchups.
Gary Payton scored 19 points for Los Angeles.
Bryant missed seven games with a cut on his right index finger.
“I was about 90 percent, but I felt great,” he said. “I was just waiting for things to open up for me. If they did test me, I didn’t notice it. I felt fine and my stroke was there. It didn’t affect me at all.”
There were 14 lead changes in the first quarter before the Rockets took the lead late in the period and held on for a 46-45 lead at halftime. Houston led most of the first half. The Lakers took a brief 43-42 lead late in the second quarter before Yao’s dunk over O’Neal put Houston ahead.
Yao gave the crowd its biggest thrill in the first quarter when he came racing through the lane and batted away a shot by Stanislav Medvedenko.
Notes: Houston’s Maurice Taylor has the second-highest scoring average for players without a start this season at 11.8 points in 44 appearances. ... Houston has a winning record in every month this season. The last time that happened was the 1993-94 season, when the Rockets won the first of back-to-back NBA championships. ... To make room for Bryant, the Lakers placed forward-center Jamal Sampson on the injured list with a sprained right ankle. ... Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter coached the Rockets from 1971-73, their first season and a half in Houston.
The Pacers defeated the Heat 97-93 in Game 2 to even the series at 1-1, which now shifts to Indiana.
PBT: Pacers coach Frank Vogel said that the Heat have a more effective plan of attack against Roy Hibbert than the Knicks.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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