Harden matched Kyrie Irving’s arena record for points in a game, and his fourth with 50 or more this season bailed out the Rockets, who allowed the Cavs to score 24 straight points in the second half.
Cleveland was still up 108-107 when Harden, who came in leading the NBA in scoring at 38 points per game, dropped a floater in the lane. After a turnover by Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson, P.J. Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the corner and Clint Capela had a dunk following another Cleveland miscue.
The inexperienced Cavs crumbled in the final minute, making three turnovers.
Capela added 13 rebounds for Houston, which figured to have an easy time with the Cavs, who are struggling under first-year coach John Beilein.
Cleveland, though, came to play and was led by rookie Kevin Porter Jr.’s season-high 24 points. Collin Sexton added 18 and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 boards.
Harden connected on a pair of 3-pointers during a 16-2 run in the third quarter when the Rockets, who were sleepwalking through long stretches of the first half, appeared to take control.
But Houston relaxed, and Cleveland went on a jaw-dropping 24-0 run — all without Love, who was on the bench with a head laceration — over a 4:43 stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters to a take a 99-88 lead on Porter’s bucket.
Beilein said the increased trade chatter surrounding Love has not been a distraction.
“I’ve been hearing about that from the day I was hired,” said Beilein, echoing his predecessors. “Whatever happens in this basketball business happens. We want Kevin to play at his best and I’m sure he does as well. We hope that happens today and every day going forward.”
Love, who has been sidelined by a bruised back and illness, came in averaging 15.6 points and a team-high 10.5 rebounds. However, he had averaged only nine points in his last six games.
Beilein said he has not spoken directly to Love about whether he wants to be dealt.
“We’ve talked just around the edges of that right now,” he said. “If those type of things come out, the best thing for Kevin right now is to play the best he can every minute.”
Rockets: Irving scored 55 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Jan. 28, 2015. … Houston tied a club record with its ninth straight game scoring at least 115 points. … Harden’s 868 points through 23 games were the most since Rick Barry had 886 in 1966-67. … Harden, who also leads the league in minutes per game, is the only player averaging more than 25.0 points and 2.0 steals. … C Tyson Chandler (illness) missed his third game in a row, while G Austin Rivers (illness) sat out his second straight.
Cavaliers: Beilein said he and his staff discussed changing the starting lineup but stuck with the same five: Love, Sexton, Cedi Osman, Tristan Thompson and Darius Garland. “We’ve really done some studying which five-man groups or even two-man combinations play best together,” he said. “We may be onto some things.” … Garland is one of 11 rookies averaging double digits in scoring.
Rockets: Visit the Orlando Magic on Friday. Houston has won 11 of the last 14 games in the series.
Cavaliers: Begin a three-game road trip at San Antonio on Thursday.