HOUSTON (Ticker) -- As Tim Duncan will attest, Yao Ming is the real thing.
Yao scored 27 points and pulled down 18 rebounds, leading the Houston Rockets to an 89-75 victory over Duncan and the slumping San Antonio Spurs.
The top overall pick in the draft, Yao was matched up for the first time against Duncan, the 1997 top overall pick, reigning NBA MVP and most fundamentally sound big man in the league.
The 7-5 center from China continued his steady improvement, making 10-of-18 shots and 7-of-7 free throws. His rebounds were a season high and helped Houston to a 53-36 advantage on the boards.
"It might have been because I knew I was going up against two great centers (in Duncan and David Robinson)," Yao said through an interpreter. "When I first came to the NBA, I had a lot to tink about. To get this victory is like being able to take a deep breath."
"He played great," Robinson said. "He was all over the boards. He shot the ball well and he moved the ball around. He was the difference in the game."
Yao's presence also was felt on the defensive end. He blocked three shots, including a patented turnaround jumper by Duncan in the third quarter, and helped limit San Antonio to 34 percent (25-of-73) from the field.
Despite the poor shooting, the Spurs took a 64-61 lead into the fourth quarter. But they made just 2-of-15 shots in the final period and lost for the fourth time in six games.
Duncan had 25 points and 12 rebounds. But he made just 8-of-21 shots and 9-of-16 free throws while receiving very little help.
"He was impressive tonight," Duncan said. "He's got a great touch and he's bigger in person than you think he is. He shot the ball better than I thought he could. We put our hands in his face and it didn't matter. He played great tonight."
It was a marked improvement from Yao's first game, an exhibition contest against the Spurs in which he played poorly.
"It might have been because I was extremely tired when I first came here," Yao said. "The biggest difference between my first game and this game is that my confidence is much, much higher. I have to thank my teammates for their faith in me."
"We have a direction now, we have a versatile inside presence," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, whose team has not made the playoffs in three years. "I think he's going to sleep good tonight."
Francis scored 18 points and Moochie Norris added a season-high 16 off the bench for the Rockets, who had lost 14 of the previous 15 meetings with the Spurs. They were swept in last season's four-game set.
"We really haven't had much success against them the last couple of years," Francis said. "We're going to enjoy this, but you can't get too high because we've got too many games to play."
A 3-pointer by Francis gave Houston the lead for good at 68-66 with 9:41 to play. A basket and two free throws by Norris extended the margin to 74-69 with 7:05 to go.
Duncan made a lane jumper for San Antonio's first basket of the period. He was fouled but missed the free throw, leaving it at 76-72 with 4:44 remaining. Two free throws and a basket by Yao made it 82-73 with 3:05 to play, and the Rockets led by at least seven points thereafter.
"He did a great job of playing a complete basketball game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's a natural. He's going to be a big-time force in this league."
Kenny Thomas scored 10 points for the Rockets, who shot 45.5 percent (35-of-77).
Kevin Willis and Bruce Bowen scored 12 points apiece for the Spurs, who missed 11 free throws. Robinson scored just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.
The first quarter ended in a 21-21 tie as Yao had nine points and eight boards while Duncan had six and seven.
Yao took a breather at the outset of the second quarter but returned midway through the period and scored eight points while also finding Norris for a pair of baskets, helping Houston take a 49-39 halftime lead.
"Yao was fantastic," Tomjanovich said. "We did a better job of getting it into him."
"He's big and talented and he's just learning," Robinson said. "You can't find size like that and he's got some nice skills. We got to get tougher on him next time."
Early in the third quarter, Yao swatted a shot by Duncan, who seemed energized by the play. He scored eight points in a 12-0 run, including two free throws that gave the Spurs a 55-53 lead with 5:35 left.