HOUSTON - Stuck on the bench with four fouls for most of the third quarter, James Harden knew he would have to make up for lost time when he got back on the floor.
Harden scored 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter to lift the Houston Rockets to a 115-109 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night that evened their Western Conference semifinal at one game apiece.
"I knew my team was battling extremely hard and basically it was up to me to go out there and push us forward," Harden said.
Dwight Howard had 24 points and 16 rebounds for the Rockets, who bounced back from a 117-101 loss in the opener. Game 3 is Friday night in Los Angeles.
"We let Game 1 slip away and we didn't want that feeling for Game 2," Harden said. "It's going to be a tough two games in a row, but we've got our mojo now."
Trevor Ariza added 15 points and 13 rebounds for Houston, which made 42 of its 64 free throws. Both were franchise playoff records.
Blake Griffin led Los Angeles with 34 points, but had just eight after halftime as Houston keyed on him with All-Star point guard Chris Paul out with a hamstring injury.
"We got out of the rhythm, offensively, and that's where the game changed for us," Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers said. "We got stuck trying to go to Blake too much, and we forgot about the guys on the other side of the floor. That hurt us."
Rivers said before the game that Paul is getting better but still isn't "moving well." Rivers isn't sure if Paul will be ready for Game 3 but expects him to play at some point in this series.
The Rockets were down by three early in the fourth before scoring the next eight points, with 3-pointers by Ariza and Harden, to take a 93-88 lead.
Nine straight points by Los Angeles, capped by a 3 from Matt Barnes, cut the lead to four with 1:27 left, but Harden made a layup to extend the lead to 111-105. Howard and Harden each made two free throws to secure the victory.
"It definitely feels like we let one get away," Griffin said. "We came here to win two. But we've got to protect home court now. We can't hang our heads."
Harden made all 15 free throws. Howard was 8 for 21.
The Clippers made 25 of 32 free throws and lamented how often Houston got to the line.
"You're not going to win many games when the other team shoots 64 free throws and makes more than we even attempted," Griffin said.
Houston was 2 of 17 on 3-pointers before Ariza made one early in the fourth. Harden made another 3 about a minute after his first one in the period to make it 98-89 and flashed three fingers at the Clippers' bench.
Houston trailed by seven when Harden re-entered the game after spending most of the third quarter on the bench after picking up a fourth foul. He came in aggressive, driving the lane on the next two possessions, and getting fouled both times. He made three free throws and Ariza added a fourth one to get the Rockets within 85-83 entering the fourth.
Paul spent his 30th birthday watching from the bench, as he missed the second straight game with a strained left hamstring. Paul was injured Saturday night against San Antonio, but returned to hit the winning shot to eliminate the Spurs.
The Clippers opened the second quarter with an 18-4 run, capped by four points from Griffin, to take a 42-39 lead. Griffin had 26 points at halftime on 11 of 14 shooting.
Los Angeles led 65-56 at halftime after a 41-point second quarter.
Clippers: Barnes received a technical foul late in the first quarter when he bumped into Harden after a foul. ... Rivers started in Paul's place for the second game. ... Crawford finished with 19 points and Jordan had 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Rockets: The 41 points Los Angeles scored in the second quarter were the most points Houston has allowed in a quarter this season. ... Howard had four of Houston's 10 blocks.
There was a delay of several minutes with 11:54 remaining because the shot clock on one of the baskets went out. They finally gave up on getting it fixed and put one on the floor at both ends of the court and the public address announcer counted down when it reached 10.