Rockets spread ball, handle Clippers to wrap up playoff berth

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Houston Rockets clinched a playoff berth Sunday night. They didn't find that to be a cause for celebration.

"We knew we were going to make the playoffs," Rockets star Tracy McGrady said after his team's 105-79 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. "What are we going to do when we get there? Clinching is pretty good, but it's not what we want to celebrate."

Rookie Aaron Brooks came off the bench to score 18 points, and five teammates reached double figures in Houston's lopsided victory over the short-handed Clippers. The victory was the third straight for the Rockets (52-25), who rank fifth in the rugged Western Conference but trail the first-place New Orleans Hornets by only 2½ games.

"In this wild West, you never know what's going to happen," Brooks said. "We went from first to fifth in one day."

The Rockets learned Feb. 26 they would have to play the rest of the season without Yao Ming because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Yao averaged 22.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in the first 55 games of the season.

"The day Yao Ming went down, everybody counted us out," McGrady said.

Surprisingly, the Rockets won their first 11 games without Yao to complete a 22-game winning streak -- second-longest in NBA history -- and now they can look forward to the playoffs.

"We've run the gamut of emotions this year," Shane Battier said. "We're very, very happy to have clinched. We need to build momentum and feel good about ourselves before the playoffs start."

Rookie Luis Scola scored 16 points, Luther Head added 15, McGrady had 13 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, Bobby Jackson had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists, and Battier scored 11 for the Rockets, who shot 48.1 percent and outrebounded the Clippers 51-33.

Houston's Rafer Alston, averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 assists, missed his third game due to a sore left hamstring. But the Rockets got exceptional play from Jackson and Brooks, his replacements at point guard.

"We expect them to come out and fill the void," Alston said. "That's the type of team we have. Both of them did the job tonight. Bobby started it off, and Aaron was phenomenal."

Brooks, who averaged 4.5 points in 45 previous games, shot 7-of-9 including 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

Josh Powell had a career-high 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Clippers (23-54), who have lost 21 of their last 25 games. Elton Brand, playing just his third game of the season, had 19 points and eight rebounds in 36 minutes, and Cuttino Mobley added 11 points for Los Angeles.

Brand, playing his first home game of the season, received a loud ovation when introduced beforehand with the other Los Angeles starters. He missed 74 games while recovering from surgery on his torn left Achilles tendon after being injured Aug. 3 during an offseason workout.

The Clippers played without Chris Kaman (sprained right ankle) and Tim Thomas (sore Achilles tendon). And Corey Maggette, averaging a team-leading 22.5 points, left midway through the first quarter with a strained right hamstring and didn't return after scoring only three points.

"It's ironic because I come back and Corey strained a hamstring," Brand said. "I feel good. I don't have any limitations when I'm playing. I can get 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] if I get the minutes."

Brand is under contract for one more year, although he can opt out of his contract after this season.

"I definitely want to be here," he said. "As long as everything's fair, there shouldn't be a problem."

With McGrady on the bench, Battier and Brooks scored seven points each during a 19-4 run that gave Houston 56-36 lead. The Rockets led 62-42 at halftime thanks to a 53.8 percent shooting performance and a 26-15 rebounding advantage. The Clippers weren't closer than 13 points after that.

The Clippers were within 13 before the Rockets outscored them 19-6 to finish the game.

"They are a really good team and are heading to the playoffs, but I'm disappointed about how badly we got beat on the boards," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "Their ability to distract us and make 3s and open up the court for themselves was big tonight."

Game notes
The Rockets have a 6-5 record since their 22-game winning streak. ... The Clippers' remaining five games, against Denver and the Lakers at home and Golden State, New Orleans and Houston on the road, are all against Western Conference teams battling to get into the playoffs or for playoff position. ... Alston said he hopes to play Wednesday night against Seattle. "We're looking at the long haul," he said before the game. ... The Clippers have a 3-18 record when Kaman has had to sit out. ... The Rockets are 28-6 with Scola in the starting lineup. ... The Rockets have won nine of the last 10 games against the Clippers in Los Angeles, and 17 of the last 20 games overall between the teams.