HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets recently have developed a knack for playing great in the third quarter.
Coach Kevin McHale loves what his team has been doing after the break and wishes they could find that intensity early in games.
James Harden tied a season high with 38 points, Dwight Howard added 20 points and 13 rebounds and the Rockets used a big third-quarter run to earn a 113-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.
Howard got his first win against his former team as the Rockets sent the injury-riddled Lakers to their third straight loss.
"We did a better job in the second half of defending," McHale said. "It was a big difference in the game."
The Rockets trailed by a basket in the third quarter before going on a 17-2 run to take an 80-67 lead and roll to victory.
Harden hopes they can find a way to play better early when they leave Houston for a long road trip on Thursday.
"At the beginning of the game ... we have to come out with a sense of urgency," he said. "We can't put ourselves in situations like that because on the road these four games anything is possible and if we do that, some games we might not be able to come back."
Harden continued his recent torrid scoring with his third straight 30-point game. He has piled up 113 points in the last three games combined.
Nick Young scored 25 points to lead Los Angeles and Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks scored 21 each.
Ronnie Brewer started for the first time this season in place of the injured Chandler Parsons, who was out with a sore right knee.
Howard made a season-high four steals, Harden collected a season-best five steals, and Terrence Jones had 15 points and 13 rebounds.
The Lakers had a two-point lead midway through the third quarter when Houston got rolling, scoring seven straight points thanks to a 3-pointer by Harden and back-to-back buckets by Howard to take a 70-65 lead. The second one brought the crowd to its feet when Harden swiped a bad pass from Kendall Marshall and tossed up an alley-oop that Howard finished with a monster two-handed slam.
That spurt was the beginning of the 17-2 burst that extended Houston's lead to 80-67 with about two minutes left in the quarter. Harden was on fire in that span, scoring nine points and drawing a collective "ooh" from the crowd when he crossed up rookie Ryan Kelly on a layup to cap it.
Los Angeles was as cold as Harden was hot, missing five shots and committing three turnovers while the Rockets built the lead.
"We seem to run out of energy," Los Angeles coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I don't know if they are getting tired or it's just the other team turns on the burners."
Howard spurned the Lakers to sign an $88 million deal with Houston, joining Harden and a team that made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009.
He admitted after practice Tuesday that he was ticked off that Los Angeles came out on top in the first meeting earlier this season. The center missed several key free throws down the stretch in that one, a one-point win by the Lakers in November when they employed the Hack-A-Howard strategy.
They were down by 14 points when they used that approach again Wednesday night, fouling him every time Houston got the ball for a two-minute span ending with about two minutes left.
"It's nothing I like," D'Antoni said. "It makes an ugly game, but we're trying to get a win."
Howard made just six of 14, but Houston's lead was so big this time it didn't matter. He finished 10 of 24 from the free throw line.
"I was upset at myself for missing all those," Howard said. "I just have to get better at it."
He wouldn't acknowledge that this win meant any more than beating any other team. But said it was important for the team to win in general to get going for the road trip.
The Lakers, who are missing Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake with various injuries, lost for the ninth time in 10 games.
Houston opened the second half with a 9-3 run to take a 61-60 lead with about 8½ minutes left in the third quarter. Jones scored the last four points of that run.
The Lakers led 57-52 at halftime.
NOTES: Houston C Omer Asik missed his 17th straight game right thigh and knee injuries. ... Houston's Greg Smith sat out with a sprained right knee. ... New Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien watched the game from a courtside seat.