ORLANDO, Fla. — The Rockets believed the 3s would eventually fall. They always do. For weeks, when James Harden struggled, he found his touch. The points would come.
The 3-pointers eventually did find their target. But as if taunting the Rockets for what they lacked, the quality that they want most, the Magic poured in the shots the Rockets could not, surging past the Rockets, 116-109, Orlando’s second rally from a 12-point deficit in as many nights.
The Magic scored on seven consecutive possessions to close out the win as the Rockets’ defense broke down without the shooting to make their lead hold up.
James Harden had 38 points with 12 assists and nine rebounds. His 16th consecutive game scoring at least 30 points matched Kobe Bryant for the longest streak since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964. But Harden made just one of 17 3-pointers as the Rockets made just 3 of 16 shots from deep in the second half.
The Rockets had been fading through the third quarter, failing to get stops when the Magic moved without the ball and misfiring badly from deep. With the Rockets up eight with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, they missed their remaining five shots of the quarter, scoring only when Harden drew fouls and put in free throws.
The Magic, who had rallied back from a 12-point deficit to beat the Celtics the night before, climbed out of another 12-point hole to lead the Rockets heading into the final minute of the quarter.
Harden restored the Rockets’ lead with three free throws. But after already playing 32 minutes, he had to start the fourth, too.
The Rockets did begin the fourth quarter with a quick 8-2 run to a 10-point lead. But by then, nothing was coming easily.
They headed into the final four minutes clinging to a five-point lead, and began that closing stretch with Austin Rivers, their hottest shooter through the night, airballing a 3-pointer.
Terrence Ross followed with a running jumper through a foul for a three-point play. After Harden and Danuel House Jr. missed, Ross put in a 3 to put the Magic in front.
Harden scored inside, but with an Evan Fournier 3-pointer, the Magic not only had their largest lead, 109-107, they were making the 3s the Rockets could not.
D.J. Augustin sank a third consecutive 3-pointer before Harden barely caught the front of the rim. When Nikola Vucevic put in a jump hook, the Magic had a 16-2 run in three minutes.
The Rockets never did look sharp. They got good shots so regularly, they led for all but two first-half minutes and by as much as 12, but could not make their shots reliably enough to build a safe cushion.
Harden in particular had no difficulty getting his usual shots, especially from beyond the 3-point line, but was off throughout the first half. He still had 16 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in his 20 minutes, but he made just 1 of the 9 3-pointers he put up.
With the Rockets even more shorthanded than usual with Chris Paul and Eric Gordon out, with Nenê given the night off in the first game of the back-to-back and Brandon Knight sitting with a sore knee, the bench combined for seven first-half points.
The Rockets largely made up for what was missing with Rivers, playing in his hometown, making 5 of 6 shots in the half to score 13 points and with House adding 11.
Yet, with so much of their usual offense absent, the Rockets struggled to make the lead hold up until the Magic blew past them down the stretch.