HOUSTON — With Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard making his first appearance in Houston since leaving via free agency, and with Rockets guard James Harden thriving as an MVP front-runner, the stage was set for one or the other to close the chapter on their reportedly acrimonious three-year relationship as teammates.

That was until Hawks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. decided to steal the show.

Hardaway erupted for 23 points in the fourth quarter, including 15 in succession down the stretch, to carry the Hawks to a stunning, 113-108 come-from-behind victory over the Rockets on Thursday night at Toyota Center.

Behind the scintillating performance from Hardaway, the Hawks (29-21) erased a 20-point deficit in just over six minutes, rallying after Rockets guard Eric Gordon drilled a 3-pointer that pushed Houston to a 97-77 lead with 8:28 left to play.

Atlanta responded with a 19-7 blitz before Hardaway caught fire, drilling two 3-pointers and converting a pair of driving layups to pull the Hawks even at 106-106. The latter layup came through a foul on Rockets center Clint Capela, with Hardaway completing the three-point play before adding two more free throws and a thunderous dunk with 41.8 seconds left that extended the lead to 111-108.

“I remember telling everybody to get three or four straight stops, and lucky enough we were able to get 3-point field goals made after the stops,” said Hardaway, who scored a career-high 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting. “You’ve got the clock in your favor because you’re getting stops and get them in the penalty.”

Harden scored 18 of his game-high 41 points in the third quarter, including 12 consecutively over the opening two minutes of the period. That individual run looked to be enough when the lead ballooned to 20, but aside from Capela (22 points, nine boards), Harden didn’t receive much help on offense.

Houston (36-17) missed 38 of 51 3-point attempts, with Gordon and Trevor Ariza combining to make just 3 of 20 from behind the arc. After the Hawks effectively siphoned off Harden in the fourth, his teammates failed to fill the void, with Ariza firing an air ball with 6.9 seconds to play that represented the Rockets’ last hope.

“Frustrating, frustrating,” Harden said. “Honestly it was all of us. We just let them get too many open shots, get confidence, and (Hardaway) was making tough shots. He got to the basket; pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t good. It was a letdown in the fourth.”

Howard paired 24 points with 23 rebounds. Paul Millsap added 16 points for Atlanta but wasn’t on the court for the frantic rally. Rookie DeAndre’ Bembry helped harass Harden while Hardaway and Howard carried the Hawks offensively.

“Tim was making crazy shots, so we kept trying to find plays to get him attacking the basket,” Howard said. “That’s what I kept telling him: attack, attack, attack. He just started to open up everything after he started doing that.”

Hardaway scored 20 points after the Gordon 3-pointer extended the deficit to 20. The Rockets managed just 11 points during that ensuing stretch, unable to reignite their offense after seemingly shutting down with the expectation that the Hawks would submit after losing on the road in Miami on Wednesday night.

“Once you turn it off, you can’t turn it back on,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Then you start to overplay everything and they just kept going around us, going around us, and they made shots. You’ve got to give them their due.”

NOTES: Rockets G James Harden ended January as the No. 5 scorer in the NBA, averaging 28.3 points, but only 12th in field-goal attempts per game at 18.6. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged that Harden is still learning to strike the right balance between shooting and getting teammates involved in his first season as the point guard. He expects Harden to become more assertive within the offense by the playoffs. … The Hawks entered fifth in the league in defensive rating (103.2). Their erratic play of late can be directly linked to their defense, with the Hawks posting a 6-5 record in the previous 11 games entering Thursday. Their defensive rating during that span was 107.4, 16th in the NBA. … Rockets C Clint Capela got the start against Dwight Howard, his counterpart with the Hawks. For two seasons, Capela was a mentee under Howard, who signed with Atlanta as a free agent after three seasons with the Rockets.

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