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Kyle Kuzma leads Lakers past James Harden, Rockets; CP3 hurt

HOUSTON -- A sweat-drenched Kyle Kuzma, lungs probably burning, plopped into a chair on the Los Angeles Lakers' bench during a timeout looking like he had spent nearly all of his energy.

There still were more than two minutes to play in the third quarter, and Kuzma was having the game of his life, playing a perfect first half and burying dead-eye 3-pointers from all over the court.

But as the ever-confident Kuzma explains, he was only dripping sweat because "Houston is a very humid place. ... I think that's why I sweated so much, honestly."

Perhaps the Toyota Center felt as sweltering as a sauna for Kuzma because he was red hot. And the only thing hotter than him on this night was James Harden.

A spectacular duel broke out in Houston on Wednesday night with the Lakers' fearless rookie Kuzma staring down MVP candidate Harden for more than a half. Kuzma knocked down his first nine shots en route to a career-high 38 points to go with seven rebounds. Kuzma finished 12-of-17 from the field, including 7-of-10 from 3-point range.

Harden, though, would not be outdone, scoring 51 points and delivering nine assists. Harden went 15-for-27 from the floor, 4-of-6 from 3-point range and 17-of-21 from the line, but it wasn't enough to keep the longest winning streak in the NBA alive as the Lakers stunned the Rockets, snapping their 14-game run with a 122-116 victory in Houston.

Much more concerning for the Rockets (25-5), though, is the fact that they also lost Chris Paul, who left the game for good in the fourth quarter with a strained left adductor. Paul finished with eight points, five assists and five rebounds in 25 minutes and suffered his first defeat in the 16 games he has played with the Rockets this season.

In order for Houston to lose for only the second time since Oct. 30, the Lakers (11-18) had to play their best game of the season and do so without two starters. Center Brook Lopez (ankle) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (court travel restriction) were not with the team, and yet despite starting three rookies, the Lakers somehow snapped Houston's streak of winning 55 straight when scoring 115 points or more.

But the young Lakers looked like veteran world beaters early on. Houston came into the game as the hottest team in basketball, winning 20 of its previous 21 games. But the Lakers opened the game hotter than Houston, burying three consecutive 3-pointers at the start.

Almost every Laker was contributing in some form or fashion. Larry Nance Jr. (13 points and nine rebounds) was active on the offensive glass, Corey Brewer (21 points) was everywhere and out to get a piece of his old team, snatching steals, scoring on drives and even hitting a couple of momentous 3s. Lonzo Ball continues to play better and get more comfortable, finishing with 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists to go with two blocks. And Brandon Ingram scored 13 points and had six rebounds and six assists for the Lakers, who snapped a three-game slide.

"You can tell they came out to play," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. "They had us back on our heels, which is rare for us to come out there like that."

One Laker in particular, Kuzma, could not be stopped early on.

The rookie forward from Utah, who continues to make other general managers wish they hadn't passed on him in the draft, had a flawless shooting half, scoring 24 points and knocking down all nine of his shots, including six 3-pointers, in his 20 first-half minutes.

Kuzma made open 3s, buried heat-check 3s, sank a turnaround fadeaway in the post and threw down an alley-oop pass from Ball. All the while, Kuzma, in his typical confident fashion, acted like it was nothing special.

"I scored 30's in summer league," the Las Vegas Summer League standout said when asked if he expected to score like this so early in his career.

Unlike in Vegas, Kuzma had Harden on the opposing side. It almost seemed as though, with each shot that Kuzma made and the hotter he got -- and he was red hot in the first half -- he only seemed to be pouring gasoline on a Beard that was ready to detonate.

With the Lakers leading by as many as 22 points, Harden began taking it to the Los Angeles defense. Harden scored 24 points in the second quarter on a barrage of drives, 3-pointers, three-point plays and free throws, and the Rockets were within 63-59 at the half. Harden went 8-for-8 from the field, making two 3-pointers, and knocked down all six of his free throws in the second quarter to score nearly as many points as the Lakers had in the period (26). Harden had 30 points at the half.

"You can't stop Harden," said Ball, who actually had an impressive rejection on Harden in the second half. "You can try to slow him down; it's the best you can do. Make everything hard for him. Try and get him as tired as possible, but as far as stopping him, you can't stop him."

Kuzma and Harden would cool off slightly in the third quarter. Kuzma would finally miss his first field goal with 8 minutes, 7 seconds to go in the third. And Harden would be held to seven points in the quarter. But the teams kept going back and forth at each other, with the young Lakers refusing to back down even though Houston would take the lead a few times.

The Rockets, who also were without starting center Clint Capela (heel), got Eric Gordon going as the guard made four 3s in the second half. But surprisingly the Lakers never wilted despite each Houston run. After taking Golden State to overtime during Kobe Bryant's jersey retirement game on Monday, they came into Houston and played their best game of the season.

Brewer knocked down a critical 3-pointer in front of his old team's bench to push the Lakers up 113-104, then he kept an offensive possession alive and hit a cutting Ball, who was fouled. Ball's free throws gave the Lakers a 115-104 lead with 2:36 left that not even the Rockets and Harden could overcome.

Afterward, Kuzma seemed hardly impressed by his career performance, which marked the most points by a Lakers rookie in a road game since Elgin Baylor scored 41 on Jan. 25, 1959, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. It's what the Lakers love about the 27th overall pick, who became the first rookie with at least 38 points, seven rebounds, four assists and seven 3-pointers since Jason Kidd in 1995.

"It was pretty cool," Kuzma finally admitted about going toe-to-toe with Harden for stretches. "He's one of the best players in the league, so it was a cool moment for sure.

"[But] I've played like 30 games," Kuzma countered. "I've played LeBron James, so it can't get much higher after that, so just try to keep it the same now."