HOUSTON -- The Lakers tried their best, chasing Dwight Howard and his associates wherever he went, but ultimately failed.
That was last summer. Not Thursday night.
The Lakers lost a 19-point lead but then rallied to beat Howard and the Houston Rockets, 99-98, in front of a suddenly stunned Toyota Center crowd.
Steve Blake was the Lakers' hero, hitting a wide-open three-pointer with 1.3 seconds left to prevent the Lakers from falling to the Rockets on the court after losing to them in free agency.
Last July, Rockets executives wined and dined Howard, piling into a Mercedes-Benz with him in Los Angeles on the first night of free agency before eventually winning the Howard sweepstakes.
Howard had 15 points and 14 rebounds Thursday but also an 0-1 record against the Lakers since signing a four-year, $88-million contract with Houston.
The Lakers were jubilant on the court, hugging under the basket after Patrick Beverley missed a 27-foot three-point attempt at the buzzer.
Then they returned to the locker room to find something else. Kobe Bryant smiling broadly.
"He was in a good mood," Pau Gasol said. "He shook everybody's hand when we got in the locker room."
Bryant 1, Howard 0.
The Lakers were 13-point underdogs but led 38-19 on the way to making a ridiculous 12 of their first 15 three-point attempts.
They cooled off badly and looked to be a stumbling mess when they took the ball out of bounds down two points with 10.9 seconds left. They fumbled it at least three times before Houston knocked the ball out of bounds.
So after another timeout with 3.4 seconds left, the play was supposed to go to Steve Nash. But Jodie Meeks inbounded the ball to the open Blake, who finished with 14 points.
"It would have been nicer if the buzzer went off," the understated Blake said.
The Lakers held their breath through one more timeout and improved to 3-3. They got there in part by employing the Hack-a-Howard, which Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni criticized last season.
Howard was five for 12 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter (five for 16 overall), going four of eight when fouled intentionally.
"I have to get back into the gym and continue the work and they will fall," he said. "They hit a tough shot. I think they just had confidence all game."
The Rockets had their chances to win at the line, getting 52 free-throw attempts and making only 33.
On a night where Gasol had only two points on one-for-10 shooting, the Lakers were buoyed by reserves Jodie Meeks (18 points), Wesley Johnson (16 points) and Jordan Farmar (11 points). The Lakers' effort was enough to offset the 35 points James Harden scored.
Bryant and Howard didn't have a good time in their one season together on the Lakers. Not even close. But Bryant said kind things about him before the game.
"I think he'll have a great year," Bryant said. "He was always very determined to be more of an offensive player. Here in Houston, he'll have that opportunity to do that. He always wanted to compete with the all-time greats — the Chamberlains, the Shaqs, the Olajuwons and so forth. This year should be a year where he can put up those type of numbers."
Nice words, but Bryant and Howard are not friends.
"We speak every day," Bryant said sarcastically.
Bryant noticed Clippers fans booed Howard when he was introduced before the Rockets-Clippers game Monday at Staples Center.
"The city of L.A., whether you're a Clipper fan or a Laker fan, if somebody doesn't want to be in L.A., they take it personally no matter what," Bryant said.
Howard, meanwhile, sarcastically said he still thought about his time with the Lakers.
"Every day," he said. He said he enjoyed many things associated with the Rockets.
"The fans have been great, the organization has been amazing, my teammates have been unbelievable," he said. "I'm having a great time."
Some Lakers fans would call the free-agency loss of Howard a success, though the Lakers undeniably chased him.
Funny thing, though. Even without Bryant, the Lakers are only one game behind the Rockets in the standings.
Twitter: @Mike_BresnahanCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times