SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - It was a familiar site at Arco Arena on Thursday night, with Ron Artest playing a starring role and Rick Adelman coaching his team to a victory.
They just weren't doing it for the Kings.
Cheered in pre-game warmups for his tenure in Sacramento, Artest responded by scoring 26 points and the Houston Rockets used a big third quarter to pull away for a 115-98 victory over the Kings, Adelman's first at Arco since being fired by the team after eight seasons.
There was little sentiment afterward by either Adelman or Artest. The Rockets are focused on finishing the season strong and getting ready for the playoffs, a place Sacramento hasn't visited since Adelman last coached the Kings in the 2005-2006 season.
"What I'm thinking about right now is the next game, not about coming back here to play or what this game means in the standings," Artest said.
Yet the victory was a significant one for Houston. It was the Rockets' third straight and moves them past San Antonio and into first place in the Southwest Division with three games remaining in the regular season. Houston is third in the Western Conference.
Yao Ming had 20 points and nine rebounds for the Rockets, who trailed by five at halftime but dominated the third quarter, taking an 11-point lead that never dipped back into single digits in the fourth. Luis Scola scored 15 points, Von Wafer had 13 and Shane Battier added 12.
Spencer Hawes had 22 points and 11 rebounds for the struggling Kings, while Francisco Garcia and Andres Nocioni scored 17 each and rookie Jason Thompson added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
"A team like that, trying to get that third seed in the playoffs, well you can't do the stuff we did (in the second half) and miss a lot of shots," Thompson said. "It kind of bit us at the end of the game."
Artest was at his best in his first regular season game in Sacramento since playing for the Kings for 2½ seasons and leaving last summer in a trade to Houston. He connected on three 3-pointers, made 10-of-18 shots overall, and added four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
After trailing much of the first half, the Rockets established control in the third quarter. Going to Yao frequently inside and with Artest hitting a variety of shots, Houston outscored the Kings 36-20.
"We all knew we had to pick up our defense in the second half, we didn't need any General Patton speech to do it," Battier said of Houston's inspired play in the third quarter. "There is a tendency to want to put a team like that away in the first five minutes. They are pros too. They played loose, made shots, and put pressure on us in that first half. We wanted to play hard and wear them down in the second half and that's what we were able to do."
Artest scored 13 in the third period and Yao added 10 as the Rockets took an 85-74 lead.
"We started playing solid ball in the third quarter and began playing off Yao," Artest said. "We got the ball into Yao and he was finding the open man. In the third quarter it happened to be me a lot."
The victory completes the Rockets' three-game season sweep of the Kings, who dropped their sixth straight and eighth in nine games. With the NBA's worst record at 16-62, Sacramento is on track to have its worst finish in franchise history.
"No, I don't think much about the Kings (struggles)," Adelman said. "I just think it's going to take some time. They have had to make changes. They have had to change players and it's hard to stay at the same level when you do that."
Thompson and Hawes, the Kings' promising frontcourt players, bothered the Rockets at the offensive end in the second quarter. Thompson had 14 points and seven rebounds in the opening half and Hawes added 13 points and eight rebounds, helping Sacramento take a 54-49 lead.
Battier made four 3-pointers and scored 12 first-half points for Houston. Artest added 11 points for the Rockets, who shot 41 percent over the first 24 minutes.
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