The sweat that poured off Kyle Kuzma during his career night at the Toyota Center said nothing about his frame of mind.
It’s just that Houston is hot and humid. Inside Kuzma was as cool as can be, much too cool for a rookie who just led his team to a win over the team with the best record in the NBA.
“I’ve played like 30 games,” Kuzma said. “I’ve played LeBron James, so it can’t get much higher after that, so just try to keep it the same now.”
It took a short-handed scrappy group of players who tend to show off against the toughest competition to finally stop the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers snapped a 14-game winning streak by the Rockets on Wednesday night, beating Houston 122-116. Kuzma, given a surprise start, led the Lakers with a career-high 38 points, and might have played his way into a more consistent starting role.
Kuzma became the first rookie in NBA history to score at least 38 points with seven or more made three-pointers while shooting at least 70% from the field.
“We’re tired of losing,” Corey Brewer said. “I feel like everybody keeps saying we’re young, but these young guys want to win. Tonight I told them, we can win this game. Even though they won 14 in a row, they look at me like I’m going to be one of the leaders, I tell them we can win. Tonight we won.”
Brewer, whom the Rockets traded to the Lakers last season, scored 21 points in 25 minutes, providing a spark of the bench.
The Lakers improved to 11-18 while the Rockets, who got 51 points from James Harden, suffered just their fifth loss of the season.
The Lakers started a lineup they don’t use often. Without Brook Lopez, who will miss three weeks with a sprained ankle, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is not allowed to leave California because of a court order, they started Andrew Bogut at center and Josh Hart at guard. Kuzma got the start over Larry Nance Jr., who played 22 minutes off the bench and scored 13 points.
The Rockets played without Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute. Chris Paul left the game with a leg injury early in the fourth quarter.
Riding Kuzma’s hot hand, the Lakers led by 16 in the first quarter and 22 points in the second. Kuzma made his first six three-pointers and his first eight shots overall.
But the Rockets wouldn’t go so easily. By halftime they cut the Lakers’ lead to four.
It wasn’t the last time the Rockets threatened. Houston took a 78-75 lead in the third quarter but that was the last time they led.
While Houston stayed close, the Rockets could never push the Lakers over the cliff.
With less than four minutes remaining in the game, Brewer released a three-pointer right in front of the bench belonging to the team that traded him away in February. The ball rattled back and forth inside the rim then sank to give the Lakers a nine-point lead. Seconds later, point guard Lonzo Ball made two free throws to give the Lakers an 11-point lead.
Houston got within six points with 54 seconds left on a Harden layup, but a charge by Rockets guard Eric Gordon gave the ball back to the Lakers with 28.4 seconds to go. In the final 30 seconds, the Lakers missed three free throws, a common nemesis.
“I asked the group who could make a damn free throw at the end of the game and [Kuzma] said, ‘Me,’ ” coach Luke Walton said. “And they fouled him and he missed his first one and barely made the second one so I love his confidence.”
It’s the first win in a brutal stretch of games for the Lakers against the league’s top teams. The win Wednesday followed their trend of playing those types of teams close.
They lost to the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers by nine points last Thursday. They lost to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors by two points in overtime on Monday.
In some ways, those losses might have led to this win.
“We lost a bunch of tough close games and our guys haven’t lost faith or work ethic in what we are doing even though we have been losing games,” Walton said. “They have been coming in and practicing just as well, just as hungry, just as motivated and keep getting better and it takes the failure, it hurts to really grow and come out stronger inside.”
Minutes later the Lakers boarded a plane and flew to the Bay Area where the Warriors await, again.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli