As measuring sticks go, nights against the Miami Heat and the other contenders that crowd the Rockets schedule this month might offer more meaningful insight. The Rockets, however, knew better. They learned that the hard way.

There was a time this season that the Rockets lost games perilously similar to Wednesday’s obvious trap in Orlando. They started sluggishly against a team diving for lottery position. They trailed by 14, allowing a weak opponent – wedged between dates with the Heat and Pacers with a 3 a.m. arrival in between – to get on an early roll. The boos for Dwight Howard were more obligatory than angry and too perfunctory to jack up the intensity the way they had in Los Angeles.

Yet as much as the Rockets hope to show how they have grown in the stretch of games against the NBA’s best, they demonstrated that in a different way against one of its worst. Caught in a game similar to those losses in Utah, Philadelphia and Sacramento, the Rockets cranked up their defense, turned to their stars and turned a 14-point deficit into a 101-89 smackdown of the Magic that kept their 2014 roll going without getting too close to one of the ugly, early-season hiccups.

With that, losing team like the Magic seemed very 2013. With wins in 13 of 15 games, the Rockets are an NBA best 21-6 since the New Year’s Eve loss to the Kings. When the Magic pushed the Rockets toward one of those early-season nights when they never regained control, the Rockets responded very differently than they once had, even taking a lesson from the Heat the night before.

“We just stayed composed,” said Howard, who finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds in his second game in Orlando since leaving after the 2011-12 season. “There was one thing we saw last night, even though we got the win against the Heat. The whole game no matter how many plays … we made, they just stayed composed. They didn’t argue with each other. The got in the huddle, did what they had to do and played.

“That’s what we did tonight. Orlando came out. They hit a lot of shots. Instead of us pointing the finger and complaining, we just stayed together.”

Early in the season, when weaker teams got off to the sort of start the Magic did on Wednesday, the Rockets attempted to outscore them, taking tight, high-scoring games into the final minutes when playing with that sort of fire burned them badly. The Magic, playing without guard Victor Oladipo and Jameer Nelson, put up 32 points in the first quarter, making 60.9 percent of their shots and committing just one turnover.