Wizards guard Bradley Beal (33 points) tries to drive past Dwight Howard (12) and James Harden. (Patric Schneider/AP)

If the offseason proceeded how the Washington Wizards had envisioned on July 1, when the NBA’s wild free agency period began, they would have re-signed Trevor Ariza. Bringing back the premier perimeter defender and positive locker-room presence was a top priority. An aggressive recruiting campaign, which included visits to Ariza’s Los Angeles home from players and Coach Randy Wittman, was evidence.

Ariza, however, decided to bolt for the Houston Rockets, leaving the Wizards stunned. But Washington had a contingency plan in place, and it included wooing Paul Pierce to Washington, an implausible notion just a year earlier. When the future Hall of Famer agreed to join the upstart Wizards two days after Ariza left, it signaled that Washington had become a desirable destination.

Nearly six months later, the Wizards encountered Ariza and the Rockets to commence a grueling road trip and signal another step in their ascendance. Fueled by a third-quarter outburst led by Pierce, Washington held off a Rockets surge down the stretch to escape Toyota Center with their best victory of the season, 104-103.

The triumph, the Wizards’ first in Houston in exactly six years, extended Washington’s winning streak to three games and kicked off a gantlet against five of the Western Conference’s top nine teams in eight days away from Verizon Center as the Wizards look to prove they belong among the NBA’s elite.

“This is one step. It’s only one step,” Pierce said. “Over the course of the season you have to have key wins. This [Western Conference] trip is a big trip for us so maybe teams will start taking notice of the Washington Wizards.”

The win came with an uneasy ending. The Wizards built an 18-point lead in the third quarter, only to have the Rockets roar back with suffocating defense and a lights-out shooting display in the final period. James Harden’s fadeaway jumper with 5 minutes 47 seconds remaining completed the comeback and knotted the game at 84. The Wizards responded with a 9-0 run, but again Houston didn’t relent, scoring seven straight points to shrink it deficit back to two.

Bradley Beal and Pierce then partnered to put the Rockets away. Pierce, who finished with 21 points, drained an arena-silencing three-pointer with 1:12 left and Beal went 6 for 6 from the free throw line in the game’s final 1:47 to provide the necessary cushion in the waning moments, which concluded with Harden scoring the Rockets’ final nine points, including a meaningless desperation three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left.

“That just came with experience over the past couple years and the past couple games this year,” said Beal, who was aggressive offensively the entire night and finished with a season-high 33 points on 9-for-17 shooting. “Just everybody being on the same page and realizing that we’ve been in these situations before. We just have to make smart decisions.”

Beal guarded Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer, most of the night. Though Harden paced the Rockets with 33 points on 10-for-21 shooting, the Wizards succeeded in making scoring a chore for him. Washington’s defensive game plan centered on not affording Harden, the league’s best slasher and free-throw generator, a head of steam to the basket.

They swarmed his space with help defenders and forced him to pass whenever possible. Their goal was to limit him under 10 free throw attempts because the Rockets were undefeated when he reached that mark. He compiled seven free throw attempts Monday.

“He’s good for a reason and he showed that again tonight,” Wittman said. “But I thought our guys really battled him pretty good.”

Houston (21-9) faced the challenge of incorporating Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, who were both acquired over the previous 10 days. Smith, who was shockingly waived by the Detroit Pistons last week, started at power forward and finished with three points on 1-of-6 shooting in his Rockets home debut. Brewer was more effective, scoring 15 points in 28 minutes off the bench.

Ariza, one of two Rockets to start every game this season, scored 15 points, finishing 6 for 15 from the field, including 2 for 8 from three-point range.

After the teams failed to score in their first offensive possessions, play was halted when Rockets players noticed their rim was crooked. An unusual 35-minute delay, beginning at 7:13 p.m. local time, followed. The episode came almost exactly a year to the day a leaky roof also delayed the teams’ meeting on Jan. 11 at Verizon Center last season for 35 minutes.

“It’s something about playing these guys,” Wittman said. “I’m glad it was at their place this time.”

The teams went back to their locker rooms as the Rockets mascot, a bear named Clutch, attempted to entertain the anxious crowd with dozens of trick shots with his back to the basket from the fifth row and on a giant red medicine ball from the elbow. He made one.

The entire hoop was eventually replaced, and play resumed after the teams completed a five-minute warmup session. Thirty-eight minutes after tip-off, Dwight Howard scored the night’s first two points with a turnaround hook shot to spring his 10-point first quarter.

But Howard was a non-factor over the final three periods. The Wizards fronted him in the post and emphasized physicality when covering him. The formula was effective. Howard mustered just three points after the first quarter, and Houston was outscored by 26 points when he was on the floor.

With Howard out of the picture, the Wizards generated offense with defense to launch a game-deciding run beginning in the second quarter. Down five, Beal nailed a three-pointer with 1:24 remaining in the first half and followed it up with another three to spark a 38-13 run that spanned the second and third quarters.

Pierce was the catalyst for the latter half of the spurt, tallying 11 points in the first six minutes of the third quarter as Houston committed five turnovers over the brief stretch. The Wizards required some late-game theatrics, but the cushion proved enough.

“It’s tough to win, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Wittman said. “What am I taking away from this? This is a good win to start this road trip.”

Wizards note: Forward Martell Webster, who has been out all season with a back injury, was activated before the game but did not play.