Houston Rockets guard James Harden, left, dribbles the ball ahead of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.(Scott Halleran / Getty Images)
Dwight Howard sat out because of a strained knee, immediately eliminating a captivating part of Wednesday’s game.
Nobody called anybody “soft.” No wild elbows flew. The referees didn’t have to separate anybody.
But with Dwight vs. Kobe Bryant off the board, something unexpected popped up to take its place. Would you believe Wesley Johnson vs. James Harden?
Johnson came up with the play of the game, and maybe the Lakers’ season so far, in a 98-92 victory Wednesday over the Houston Rockets.
Johnson stripped Harden, moved quickly downcourt and converted a three-point play after getting fouled by Harden on a layup with 43.2 seconds to play. It turned a one-point deficit into a two-point lead as the Lakers (3-9) found themselves with a — what’s this? — two-game winning streak.
Quite a few players contributed on a night where Bryant had 29 points on 10-for-28 shooting at Toyota Center. Jordan Hill and Nick Young each had 16 points. Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Above all, there was Johnson.
He sometimes floats through games, slipping into cruise control and forgetting to come out of it. He’ll score 15 points in a game, draw some minor media attention, and then go several games before it happens again.
That’s the way it’s been for the fourth pick in the 2010 draft, an afterthought in the Lakers’ off-season plans who re-signed with them for the veteran’s minimum.
Johnson called the theft of Harden the biggest play of his career. It was tough to argue.
“I saw what he was trying to do when I wasn’t in the game,” Johnson said. “I saw he was sweeping low, he loves to go left. I was playing the ball and I got my hand on it.”
Bryant had an efficient first half but went two for 11 in the third quarter and two of six in the fourth. Not that he cared.
“I mean, we had a bad start. Are we a 3-9 team? No,” Bryant said. “We’re a much better team than that. We’ll pick it up.”
The Rockets (9-3) need to pick up their pace after an odd week in which they won a game by scoring 69 points, got drubbed by Memphis and now fell to the Lakers at home.
They can try using the Howard excuse. He was a late scratch, surprising almost everybody by sitting out with a sore right knee, an announcement coming within minutes of tipoff.
Bryant and Howard weren’t so friendly in the Rockets’ 108-90 season-opening victory over the Lakers. Bryant called him soft, among many unprintable words, after Howard took a defensive rebound in the fourth quarter and swung his elbows as Bryant pestered him. Howard pointed at Bryant and yelled at him as referees moved quickly to separate them.
Three weeks later, Bryant was asked if he really thought Howard was soft. Kevin Durant appeared to call him something even more disparaging in a recent game that the injured Oklahoma City forward watched from the bench.
“In moments of confrontation during the game, you’ll say things in the heat of the moment,” Bryant said. “I know Dwight and I’m sure Kevin does. We don’t really feel that way about him. Just like when you get in an argument with somebody, you’ll say something out of frustration, out of anger that you really don’t mean.
“You guys that are married, you guys argue, sometimes you just say things that you want to take back, you don’t even mean. But it’s in the heat of confrontation.”
With Howard out, Tarik Black started at center for Houston. He’s a rookie from Kansas. He had five points.
Harden had 24 points but was mad at himself for “silly turnovers” and “silly mistakes.”
He had six turnovers, none bigger than the last one.