HOUSTON — Carlos Boozer was back, in a big way.
But starting center Mehmet Okur was absent again on the offensive end, starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko was a non-factor and the Jazz simply did not have enough firepower in Monday night's 98-90 Game 2 loss to Houston at the sold-out Toyota Center.
At least not with swingman Tracy McGrady scoring 31 points that included 12-of-14 shooting from the free-throw line, fellow All-Star Yao Ming adding another 27, starting power forward Chuck Hayes chipping in a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double and the Rockets shooting more than twice as many free throws as the Jazz.
"When there is such a disparity in free throws," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, "it is very difficult."
As a result of Utah's troubles, the Rockets now own a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven first-round NBA Western Conference series, which next moves to EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City for Thursday's Game 3.
"We're going to have to be better to beat this team," Sloan said. "We know that."
That Houston held on in Game 2 was certainly no fault of Jazz All-Star power forward Boozer, who followed a disappointing 11-point performance in Saturday's Game 1 with a 41-point, 12-rebound double-double Monday.
Boozer made 17-of-30 shots from the field, 7-of-9 from the line and dished another six assists to help Utah have a fighting chance in the fourth quarter.
"I felt like I let my team down in Game 1 by not making my shots," said Boozer, who hit 4-of-17 shots Saturday. "It was on me (Monday) to come out and be more aggressive and give my team a lift."
But with Okur continuing to struggle — he shot just 2-of-9 Monday, and is now 4-for-23 with only 10 points through the first two games of the series — and Kirilenko getting into early foul trouble, the Jazz's comeback bid sputtered in the late going.
Utah led for the final time at 58-56 late in the third quarter, and was tied again at 62 with one minute and 55 seconds remaining in the period.
After McGrady, however, knocked down a 3-pointer two Houston possessions later — his lone make from behind the line in eight attempts — the Rockets were up 65-62, and ahead to stay.
The Jazz did twice trim a 12-point Houston fourth-quarter lead to as few as four points, first when Boozer made a turnaround jumper with 4:05 to go and again when Gordan Giricek hit a 21-footer to make it 84-80 with 3:28 remaining.
McGrady, though, answered Giricek's jumper with two free throws stemming from a foul call on Giricek that some might argue was a classic case of superstar-gets-the-benefit-of-the-doubt.
Giricek then missed a jumper on the other end, and Yao — who went to the line because of a loose-ball foul on Boozer — hit two more freebies as Houston used a 6-0 mini run for all the separation it would need.
The Rockets got points on each of their last five possessions of the game, and that was plenty to hold off a Utah team that shot just 17 free throws compared to Houston's 38.
Kirilenko was scoreless on three attempts from the field and finished with three rebounds and two blocks, logging just 18 minutes — including only two early in the fourth quarter — one day after he shed tears over his reduced role.
Kirilenko never did get a chance at guarding McGrady, though Giricek, starting shooting guard Derek Fisher, starting point guard Deron Williams and backup small forward Matt Harpring all did.
None of that seemed to bother McGrady, who is averaging 27 points per game so far in the series.
As for Yao, he was guarded admirably on the defensive end by Okur — who was hit with at least a couple seemingly ticky-tack fouls.
But that appeared to take its toll on Okur on the offensive end of the floor, as the All-Star center wound up more than 13 points below his regular-season scoring average.
Meanwhile, Houston was able to win despite shooting just 36.1 percent (30-of-83) from the field — nearly 10 percent shy of the Jazz's percentage.
They made up the difference on the line, though, hitting 89.5 percent of their free throws. And there was a reason they were shooting so often from there, Rockets small forward Shane Battier suggested.
"Obviously we didn't really have a shooting clinic," he said. "(But) we tried to go to the rack a little bit more.
"We know that if we go to the basket, we have to go really hard — because you're going to get fouled," Battier added. "They (the Jazz) are a very physical defensive team, and a lot of teams don't want to accept that challenge. To win in the playoffs, you have to."
And, at least for one night, the Rockets did just that — nullifying Boozer's best efforts to render moot the issue of such a wide free-throw gap.
"We're trying to stay in the ballgame," Sloan said, "and they are going to the free-throw line a great deal — and that is difficult for us, and that will hurt any team."
UTAH vs. HOUSTON
Game 1: Rockets 84, Jazz 75
Game 2: Rockets 98, Jazz 90
Houston leads series, 2-0
Game 3: Thursday, at Utah, 7 p.m. (KJZZ, NBATV)
Game 4: Saturday, at Utah, 8:30 p.m. (KJZZ, ESPN)
Game 5: Monday, at Houston, TBD (KJZZ)*
Game 6: May 3, at Utah, TBD (KJZZ)*
Game 7: May 5, at Houston, TBD (KJZZ, TNT)*