HOUSTON -- There were moments this season when Houston Rockets guard James Harden was chastised for his lackluster commitment to defense and an overall malaise toward anything outside of scoring.
Harden offered no opportunity for criticism Sunday night, delivering a dominating all-around performance while leading the Rockets to a 98-88 victory over the Orlando Magic at Toyota Center.
Harden combined critical scoring with dazzling playmaking, pairing 27 points with 10 assists while defending Magic guard Arron Afflalo with vigor. He challenged Afflalo throughout, with his engagement on both ends of the court central to the Rockets' ability to outlast feisty Orlando.
"Everybody as a player, especially when you're as young as James is (24), you're always evolving and getting better," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "I said this to him a lot last year that his evolution has got to be on that defensive side.
"And then on the offensive side his evolution is just reading the defense, staying a step ahead of it, passing when you have two on you, busting seams when there's one guy guarding you. He's just been getting better."
Houston (15-7) won for the 10th time in 13 games, and it embarks on a West Coast swing to face the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings having registered double-digit margins in its past seven home victories.
The Rockets weren't flawless against Orlando. They missed 18 of 42 free throws and committed 20 turnovers that Orlando turned into 22 points. The Magic (6-14) even sliced a 22-point deficit to 10 midway through the fourth quarter but could not stave off a fifth consecutive defeat.
"I appreciated the way our guys continued to push it," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "We had some bunnies early in the game, some good looks around the rim, and the ball just didn't go in for us. There were some different moments in the game a team can overcome, and we had great resolve tonight."
Center Dwight Howard (20 points, 22 rebounds, three blocks) and forward Terrence Jones (16 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks) produced double-doubles for Houston, while forward Chandler Parsons scored 18 points.
Afflalo, usually exceptionally efficient, scored 16 points but needed 17 shots to reach that total. Center Glen Davis added 18 points for the Magic.
With center Nikola Vucevic missing a third consecutive game due to a left ankle sprain, Orlando was especially vulnerable to Howard inside. The Magic overcompensated by collapsing the paint defensively, and Houston took advantage with one stretch of breathtaking perimeter shooting.
Trailing 9-4 in the first quarter, Houston reeled off seven consecutive 3-pointers, missing one 3-pointer and a Jones floater during that stretch. The Rockets' first five treys were the foundation of a 21-3 run. Guard Patrick Beverley and Harden added 3-pointers following a trey by forward Andrew Nicholson to extend the Rockets' advantage to 25-12.
"We just didn't play well," Davis said. "We can't make shots. (The Magic shot only 34.4 percent). But it's not about the shots; it's about the defense. Everybody needs to be held accountable in making sure they do what we need to do or it's going to be a long season."
Orlando managed to keep Howard's offense under control early, with the center recording his first basket at the 6:36 mark of the second quarter, a put-back of a Beverley air-ball. But Howard dominated the glass, grabbing 11 boards before the break -- four on the offensive end.
Houston overwhelmed the Magic on the glass, finishing with a plus-17 rebounding advantage and 60 rebounds, the most for the Rockets since they recorded that total against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 15, 2009. Without Vucevic and his 10.9 boards per game, the Magic labored.
"We knew if we got out and rebounded the basketball, especially our guards, we can push in transition," Harden said. "We just made an effort to get in there and rebound."
NOTES: On the heels of his 43-point performance against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 3, Magic G Arron Afflalo was averaging a career-high 22.4 points on just 15.9 shots per game going into Sunday's game. Among the league's top 16 scorers, Afflalo's .490 field-goal percentage ranks second to Miami Heat F LeBron James' .591 mark. "He's proven that you can be efficient in the game without searching the ball every possession," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said of Afflalo. ... Rockets G Jeremy Lin worked out Sunday but missed his sixth consecutive game with a right knee sprain/contusion. He is on pace to return on Thursday at Portland.