HOUSTON -- From the opening tip the capacity crowd at Toyota Center voiced their unyielding support for retiring Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, essentially forcing Houston Rockets guard James Harden into the challenging position to silence the cheers in the most effective manner possible.
With the outcome in the balance, Harden erupted in the fourth quarter and carried the Rockets to a 130-110 victory over the Lakers on Sunday to keep their postseason aspirations afloat.
Harden scored 20 of his game-high 40 points in the final period and, by adding 13 assists, recorded his fifth 40-point, 10-assist game of the season to match the combined total for the rest of the NBA. Harden was deferential in the aftermath but there was no mistaking that he relished the opportunity to meet the challenge and match Bryant down the stretch.
"I know for a fact James wanted to come out here and have a really good game as well," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. "That's just the type of person he is. He's a competitor as well and this is his home court. He wanted to play well."
The Rockets (39-41) needed the outburst after Bryant turned back the clock and finished with 35 points on 10-of-22 shooting in just 27 minutes, doing most of his damage in the first and third quarters.
After the Lakers closed to within 97-93 with 8:12 to play, Harden recorded a fast-break dunk and three 3-pointers to stretch the lead to 108-96 just over two minutes later. When Bryant checked out with 1:41 remaining to thunderous applause, the Rockets led 124-110.
"It was fun. I'm just happy we came out with the win," Harden said. "He made some big shots, which he has been doing in his 20 years of playing.
"It was an exciting game. It was something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Ariza finished with 19 points and seven rebounds while Patrick Beverley also scored 19 points with seven boards plus six assists.
The Rockets buried the Lakers (16-64) with 42 fourth-quarter points, nailing 8 of 14 3-pointers in the period to pull away behind Harden.
"They got a few open shots but they just started making everything," Lakers coach Byron Scott said. "All of a sudden in the fourth quarter, everything seemed to drop for them."
Jordan Clarkson added 21 points and eight rebounds for the Lakers, who dropped their 12th consecutive road game.
After scoring 15 points in the first quarter, Bryant turned it on again in the third after sitting out the entire second period.
The Rockets extended their lead to 76-64 when Harden followed a fabulous blocked shot by Dwight Howard with a seven-foot floater at the 5:56 mark of the third. Bryant responded with a 9-0 run, converting a baseline drive, a 3, a reverse layup, and a pull-up jumper in the lane.
After Jason Terry rebuilt the Rockets' double-digit lead with a 3 with 21.8 seconds left in the third, Bryant exhausted the clock before nailing a 28-footer with Ariza all over him to push the Lakers into the fourth quarter.
Bryant scored 14 points in the third and provided the Lakers with momentum they carried into the fourth, which they opened with an 8-0 spurt. But that's when Harden appeared to have had enough with the vocal Lakers contingent and the specter of another embarrassing loss.
When the Lakers conceded by removing Bryant, all that was left was to marvel at his vintage performance, one that came with just two games remaining in his Hall of Fame career.
"I'm eternally optimistic," Bryant said when asked why he wasn't surprised by his offensive explosion. "The jump shot was falling, my legs felt good, and you have nights like this."
NOTES: The NBA recently announced that the Lakers' season finale against the Jazz would be bumped from ESPN in favor of Warriors-Grizzlies on Wednesday night with Golden State pursuing the Bulls' single-season record for victories (72). Shifting the final game in the career of Kobe Bryant to ESPN2 surprised some. "I don't necessarily look at it as being trumped because we weren't scheduled to be on to begin with," Lakers coach Byron Scott said. ... Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff continues to tinker with the rotation even as the regular season draws to a close and with Houston in pursuit of a postseason berth. "I'm trying to find combinations that get it done," Bickerstaff said. ... The Rockets entered the final week of the regular season in ninth place in the West having lost seven of 10 games. Bickerstaff said the Rockets "got caught up" in must-win games and having to win out, which has adversely affected their performance.