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.
With the outcome in the balance, Harden erupted in the fourth quarter and carried the Rockets to a 130-110 win over the Lakers on Sunday to keep their National Basketball Association post-season aspirations afloat.
The Rockets (39-41) are one game behind the Utah Jazz for the eight and final Western Conference play-off spot with two regular-season games remaining.
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.
The Rockets needed Harden's dominance 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.
"I'm eternally optimistic," the 37-year-old star said when asked why he was not surprised by his offensive explosion. "The jump shot was falling, my legs felt good, and you have nights like this."
After the Lakers closed to 93-97 with 8min 12sec to play, Harden recorded a fast-break dunk and three three-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."
Rockets forward Trevor 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 eight of 14 three-pointers in the period to pull away.
Utah also won on Sunday, defeating the Denver Nuggets 100-84 at the Pepsi Centre behind rookie Trey Lyles' career-high 22 points.
The Rockets are at Minnesota this morning (Singapore time), while the Jazz play Dallas, currently in the No. 7 spot.