CLEVELAND -- Trailing by 20 on the road to the best team in the East, the Houston Rockets felt their grip on the eighth seed slipping away Tuesday night. That's when James Harden shot them all the way back.
Harden outscored the Cavs by himself in the fourth quarter, 18-16 to pull the Rockets a half-game ahead of the idle Dallas Mavericks for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"In these situations, time and time again, we channel something special and unique when we get down," Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "Desperation has to be the feeling, not panic when we get down -- and that's who we've been. Every game matters from this point on because we're trying to extend our season."
The Cavs took their biggest lead of the night at 62-42 on a 3-pointer from Iman Shumpert with 10:54 left, but Harden never lost faith because the Cavs were struggling to shoot the ball all night. Without their best player, the Cavs shot 36 percent and were outrebounded 55-38.
The Rockets were within 13 by the start of the fourth quarter and a driving layup by Harden midway through the fourth cut it to 91-87.
"Even when we got down 20 points, we felt confident because they weren't shooting the ball well," Harden said, "even when they were winning."
The Cavs missed eight straight shots in the fourth quarter and went scoreless for nearly four minutes before Kyrie Irving split two free throws with 2:44 left to pull Cleveland within 94-92. Before Irving's foul shot, the Cavs managed just one basket in six minutes.
Irving finished with 31 points and eight assists and Kevin Love had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Cavs. Love, however, went scoreless in the fourth quarter and attempted only one shot.
"I don't think I got the touches inside," Love said of his fourth quarter. He also passed on at least one open 3-point shot late in the game with the Cavs trailing. "They were doubling me and sending another guy from the top. We had to play the kick outs and look for different guys to make plays."
The Cavs fell to 1-3 without James and 4-13 since he returned to Cleveland before last season. They missed on a chance to go up 3 1/2 games on the Toronto Raptors for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, but coach Tyronn Lue said he'll continue to rest guys over the final couple weeks of the season.
"The season is long and guys are banged up. Talking to the training staff, if guys need rest, we have to give it to them," Lue said. "I want to get the No. 1 seed, but if the training staff feels like guys need rest because they're in that (danger) zone, I'm not going to fight that."
Michael Beasley scored 17 points, including 10 in the second half. Dwight Howard had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Ariza finished with 15 points for the Rockets, who won for the second time in their last six games while fighting for their playoff lives.
"Every one from now on is a big game for us," Harden said. "We just made it tough on ourselves being down 20. But these last seven (games) are definitely key for us. I think from here on out, we can't be down 20 points and expect to win."
Howard tied the score at 91 on a foul shot and Patrick Beverley gave the Rockets their first lead since the second quarter on a 3-pointer with 3:42 remaining. Ariza's corner 3-pointer with 17 seconds left sealed it.
"The thing about us is to not get in our own way," Beverley said. "When we do that, we're fine."
NOTES: Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff's father, Bernie, is a former Cavs assistant coach and remains an adviser to Cavs general manager David Griffin. Bernie did not attend Tuesday's game. "We don't talk on game days anyway," J.B. said. "But my mom is here and there are some cousin Bickerstaffs here." ... Rockets G James Harden is averaging 8.5 assists in his last 31 games and Bickerstaff has been pleased with his playmaking. "It's a two-part issue, though, because guys have to be in the right spots and he's got to get them the ball," Bickerstaff said. "His assists are up, and in terms of scoring, he's one of the best in the league at making a one-on-one play." ... Tristan Thompson set the Cavs' franchise record by playing in his 362nd consecutive game, breaking the previous record of Jim Chones, who is now the team's radio analyst. ... The Cavaliers began the night 16 3-pointers shy of matching the record for most 3-pointers in a month (164) set last March. They reached double figures in 3-pointers in their last 11 games before Tuesday, also a team record. ... Cavaliers F LeBron James is four points from passing Dominique Wilkins (26,668) for 12th place on the NBA's career scoring list.