HOUSTON - The 76ers haven't won in Houston since Feb. 16, 2011. Since then, Sixers' squads led by legitimate NBA veterans - Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Nick Young - came to this town wearing the same uniform and representing a similar quality, and left with the same result.

So, what happened here Friday night to a Sixers team built to lose a lot of games was unexpected.

They gave the Houston Rockets all they could handle before falling, 88-87, at the Toyota Center. This is the same Sixers team that was outscored by a combined 85 points in their previous two contests against the Dallas Mavericks (53 points on Thursday) and Toronto Raptors (32 on Sunday).

"Obviously, the win is the thing that we didn't get and what hurts most," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "I think [the outcome] is a fantastic reflection of what they can be. It's a sign of not feeling sorry for ourselves, and them coming back with fight.

"Those are the things you sort of leave the game with."

But on this night, the Rockets (8-1) benefited from a big play from all-star guard James Harden and a mistake by Michael Carter-Williams to get the victory.

With the Sixers clinging to a one-point lead, Carter-Williams lost the ball off his leg while driving to the basket with 16.9 seconds. Then, Harden dribbled the ball up court, and, when left unguarded, muscled his way for a layup with nine seconds left. That gave the Rockets an 88-87 lead.

Carter-Williams misfired with one second left, and the Sixers had their ninth loss.

"I tried to drive and went too far baseline," Carter-Williams said of losing the ball. "I should know [in that situation], I shouldn't drive to the corner. It was my mistake. The defender hit it off my leg, and I made a mistake."

The setback not only marked the franchise's fourth straight loss in Houston - it kept the Sixers winless through nine games for the first time since the dreaded 1972-73 season.

Harden led all scorers with 35 points. Nine of his points came in the fourth quarter. Center Dwight Howard added 21 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots.

Tony Wroten paced the Sixers with 19 points. Carter-Williams added 13 points off the bench in his second game back from right shoulder surgery. He had five rebounds, five assists, and five turnovers.

The Sixers, once again, shuffled the starting lineup.

Luc Mbah a Moute got the call at small forward one night after starting at power forward, and Brandon Davies started at power forward. KJ McDaniels, who started Thursday night at small forward, was the eighth man.

The moves were designed to combat Rockets center Howard (6-foot-11) and power forward Donatas Motiejunas (7-foot).

Whether it was the lineup or improved effort, the Sixers looked nothing like the team that was blown out the previous two games.

They played through 16 lead changes and 16 ties.

With the Sixers up, 87-84, with 36.9 seconds left, Davies' pass was stolen by Harden near midcourt. Harden was fouled going to the basket. Brown was called for a technical foul for lightly kicking the ball near the Sixers' bench.

"I deserved it," he said of the technical. "I lost some composure, and I wasn't sure about the foul. I was almost trying to kick it back to the ref."

After missing the technical foul shot, Harden buried his other two foul shots to close the gap to one point with 35.5 left.

That's when Carter-Williams' miscue led to Harden's heroics.

But the Sixers left the arena feeling a lot better than they did 24 hours earlier.

"It was a little embarrassing," Wroten said of the Mavericks loss. "So we wanted to come out and play real Philadelphia basketball. To be that close and to lose a close one, it was a nail biter."