HOUSTON — Kobe Bryant has been insisting the Los Angeles Lakers are a much better team than their terrible start indicated.
For the past two nights, the Lakers have shown he might be right.
Bryant had 29 points, Wesley Johnson made key free throws down the stretch and the Lakers took advantage of Dwight Howard's absence Wednesday in a 98-92 victory over the Houston Rockets.
It was the second consecutive win for the Lakers following a 1-9 start.
"Look, we had a bad start," Bryant said. "Are we a 3-9 team? No. We're a much better team than that. We got off to a really bad start, but we'll (get better)."
Los Angeles used a 7-1 run, highlighted by Bryant's three-point play and capped by four free throws from Johnson, to take a 94-92 lead with less than a minute left. Nick Young and Bryant added two free throws apiece to secure the victory.
Young scored 16 points in his second game back from a right thumb injury. He had 17 in his season debut Tuesday night, causing him to jokingly wonder if he was what the Lakers had been missing this season. Bryant didn't argue with that theory.
"Listen, if that's what's rolling, that's what's rolling," Bryant said, flashing a huge smile. "I'll take it."
Tarik Black, a rookie who was filling in for the injured Howard (knee), missed a free throw and a jump shot down the stretch.
Houston coach Kevin McHale appreciated Black's effort.
"He was fighting out there hard," McHale said. "He hadn't been in those positions."
James Harden had 24 points for the Rockets, who dropped back-to-back games for the first time this season.
Los Angeles took its first lead since the second quarter when Young capped an 8-0 run with a nifty reverse layup to make it 82-81 midway through the fourth. Houston missed three 3-pointers and had a turnover during that stretch.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 8-2 after that to regain an 89-84 lead.
The Lakers used a 9-0 run at the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth to cut Houston's lead to 75-74. Ed Davis led the way with four points.
The Rockets broke a scoring drought of 4 minutes with a 3-pointer by Patrick Beverley, and another 3 — this one by Jason Terry — that extended the lead to 81-74 with 8 1/2 minutes remaining.
Kostas Papanikolaou had a season-high 19 points for Houston. Beverley added 15.
Howard sat out with a strained right knee, announced just minutes before the game, and his absence eliminated the drama that accompanied Houston's opening-night win over the Lakers.
In that game, Howard had 13 points and 11 rebounds and got into a shouting match with Bryant, his ex-teammate. They received matching technical fouls when Howard elbowed Bryant in the face after grabbing a rebound in the fourth quarter.
McHale didn't have any more details on Howard's injury after the game.
Howard spurned the Lakers in 2013 after one season with them to take about $30 million less as a free agent in Houston.
Harden's scoring spree pushed Houston's lead to 75-65 in the third, but then the Lakers scored the last five points of the quarter.
Lakers: Los Angeles made 19 of 23 free throws. ... Bryant has led the team in scoring 10 times this season.
Rockets: F Terrence Jones missed his eighth straight game with nerve inflammation in his left leg. McHale said Jones is slowly getting better. ... Trevor Ariza had a pair of steals for his NBA-leading ninth game this season with at least two.
IN MY DAY
Los Angeles coach Byron Scott got a chuckle out of Young's joke on Tuesday that he is one of the top five shooters in the league. Scott thinks he might need to remind Young how good a shooter he was during his 14-year playing career.
"Give him a copy of a classic NBA game," Scott said. "Just like I used to tell the other guys ... I shot the ball pretty well."
Jeremy Lin, who spent the previous two seasons in Houston before signing with the Lakers, received a hearty ovation when he was pictured on the big screen and welcomed back to town in the first quarter. Lin finished with three points, four assists and five turnovers.
Lakers: Visit Dallas on Friday.
Rockets: Host Dallas on Saturday.