HOUSTON -- Tracy McGrady had carried the Houston Rockets through their winning streak since Yao Ming went down with a foot injury.
On Sunday, it was everyone else’s turn to help him.
Rafer Alston scored 31 points and hit eight 3-pointers, both career highs, and the Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 104-92 to stretch their streak to 22 and claim sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant scored 24 points for the Lakers and smothered McGrady on defense, helping hold the Houston star to 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting.
The rest of the Rockets made up for it. Shane Battier scored 14 points and shadowed Bryant most of the game, backup point guard Bobby Jackson added 19 points and Luis Scola had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“There wasn’t a time where we wavered from successful team basketball,” Battier said. “Different guys hit shots and we tightened the reins on defense.”
The Rockets have won 26 of their last 27 games and 31 of their last 34. They’ve won 15 straight at the Toyota Center, 10 straight since Yao went out with a broken foot and 11 of their last 13 games by double digits.
Houston haven’t been beaten since a 97-89 loss to Utah on Jan. 27.
“Let’s keep it going,” McGrady said. “This was a good test for us. We came out and took care of business.”
Critics continue to dismiss Houston’s streak as a fluke, saying the Rockets have played a bunch of bad teams. McGrady hopes this win silences some of the skeptics, even though the Lakers were missing Pau Gasol, who’s out indefinitely with a sprained ankle.
“This was really all about how good the Rockets are,” McGrady said. “This is what this game was about, the Lakers coming in here at the top of the Western Conference. This game determined where we are. We answered those questions, we took on that challenge and we’re standing alone.”
Alston had 16 points in the first quarter and Houston’s reserves scored 25 in the first half.
The Lakers held Houston to 12 points in the third quarter to cut a 15-point halftime deficit to two. But with the Lakers continuously double-teaming McGrady, Alston hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to give the Rockets a 71-66 lead heading to the fourth.
Alston came into the game knowing he was going to have opportunities to score.
“I felt that the attention was going to be on Tracy,” Alston said. “I thought if I could get going early, maybe that would shift the attention a little away from him, maybe they wouldn’t leave me out there at the 3-point line. But they stayed glued to him all night.”
Every time the Lakers got close, someone other than McGrady would keep Houston ahead. Jackson hit a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Rockets up 84-79 after Bryant cut the lead to two with a free throw.
Jordan Farmar’s 3-pointer with 6:09 left pulled the Lakers to 86-84, but Battier drove for a layup 25 seconds later.
Battier and Jackson sank 3s as Houston surged to a 96-86 lead with 3:20 to play. With McGrady occupying the defense on one side of the floor, Alston drove for a layup and Jackson swished a jumper from the wing that made it 100-86, putting the game out of reach.
Lamar Odom scored 17 and Ronny Turiaf added 13 for the Lakers, who play at Dallas on Tuesday, the next leg on a rugged four-game road trip. Gasol is expected to sit out at least the next two games.
“Teams obviously can crowd the lane and go back to playing the type of defense against us that we’ve seen in the past,” Bryant said. “What we have to do is focus on the defensive end a lot more. And I’ll obviously have to shoulder more of the load.”
With the Lakers’ defense keying on McGrady from the start, Alston sank three 3-pointers in the first 7 minutes as the Rockets built a quick six-point lead.
Alston and McGrady started the second quarter on the sideline, but the Rockets’ reserves stretched the lead. Jackson hit a jumper, drove for a reverse layup, then found Luther Head open for a breakaway dunk to start a 15-6 spurt.
McGrady didn’t score in the first half, going 0-for-6 from the field, but Houston still managed to build a 59-44 halftime lead.
Bryant started the third with a basket from the free-throw line, triggering a 12-0 Lakers spurt. The Rockets missed their first 12 shots out of the break, including two by McGrady.
Alston snapped Houston’s drought with a 3-pointer and added two more 3s in the final 1:44 of the quarter to keep the Rockets on top.