HOUSTON -- San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich didn't care about the outcome of the SAS' preseason opener against Houston on Thursday night. He was more interested in seeing his new players in action for the first time.
Ron Artest had 18 points and five rebounds and Luis Scola added 13 points as the HOU beat the short-handed SAS 85-78 on Thursday night.
By design, Popovich used mostly reserves. Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley all watched in street clothes and Tony Parker scored eight points in 14 minutes, all in the first half.
Rookie Malik Hairston scored 10 points to lead the SAS, while rookies Devin Green and Anthony Tolliver added seven points each.
"This is a fun time of year to watch the young guys play and see how they go up against the big boys, so to speak," Popovich said. "Just watch how they react, that's the fun of it. If we win, nobody cares. If we lose, nobody cares. That doesn't happen during the regular season."
Houston coach Rick Adelman used his regulars a bit more, keeping Artest, Scola, Yao Ming and Rafer Alston in the game for about 20 minutes each.
Yao scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds in two quarters for the HOU, while Tracy McGrady was in uniform, but did not play because of a sore left knee. Brent Barry started for McGrady.
The HOU have talked confidently about making a run at the NBA championship, but chemistry is an issue right now. Houston had 20 turnovers and sputtered at times running Adelman's offense.
"There were flashes of things that we are capable of doing," said Barry, who had eight assists. "Those flashes have to start turning into quarters, quarters into halves and halves have to turn into 48 minutes. We're a very long way from the season getting started and there is room to improve."
Yao played the first quarter and had one basket and three rebounds. Artest and Scola scored six points each for the HOU (2-0) in the quarter, but Jacque Vaughn's pullup jumper with 1.4 seconds left tied it at 22.
Parker played five minutes in the first quarter, then returned in the second, with Darryl Watkins and Green, Tolliver and Hairston rounding out the lineup. At that point, Houston countered with Aaron Brooks, Chuck Hayes, Luther Head, Von Wafer and rookie Joey Dorsey.
Wafer, who signed as a free agent just before training camp began, finished a fast break with a slam and hit a 20-footer to put the HOU up 31-26. SAS (0-1) regulars Fabricio Oberto and Ime Udoka rejoined Parker later in the second quarter. Artest also returned and hit two 3-pointers during a 15-0 spurt that pushed the HOU' lead to 46-30.
Wafer had nine points in the first half and Houston led 50-34 at halftime. Wafer finished with 14 points, but he's still a long shot to make the final roster.
"I keep my head up and I stay confident," Wafer said. "I'm trying to play as hard as I can."
Houston's starting lineup was back on the court for the third quarter and Scola's three-point play near the 4-minute mark stretched the lead to 66-46. Yao scored six points in the quarter, including a one-handed dunk, before going to the bench for the night.
Alston said the HOU not only need to improve the offense, but also work on their defense. Last season, Houston had the second-best scoring defense in the Western Conference, behind San Antonio.
"That's one area we're good at," Alston said. "That's something we've got to get back and put an emphasis on."
Popovich played most of the fourth quarter with a lineup of Green, Watkins, Tolliver, Hairston and rookie George Hill. Rookie Charles Gaines checked in later and the youngsters got within four points.
Mike Harris scored inside to put the HOU up 84-78 and Brooks took a charge on Hill's drive in the final minute to secure the win.