HOUSTON -- Rockets All-Star guard James Harden possesses one of the more distinctive games in the NBA, with his array of step-back 3-pointers and downhill drives to the rim serving as its most identifiable characteristics. But with the game in the balance on Monday night, Harden mimicked another All-Star point guard.
Harden converted a dramatic coast-to-coast layup with 2.4 seconds remaining to cap a white-knuckle fourth quarter and give the Houston Rockets a 125-124 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Toyota Center.
Harden corralled an errant shot from Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson and raced up the center of the court before his finger roll through traffic gave the Rockets (49-22) their final lead. Harden followed with a deflection on the subsequent inbounds pass intended for Nuggets center Mason Plumlee to seal the victory.
Said Plumlee: "I thought it was a good decision on their part to not call a timeout. Sometimes it's harder to score against a set defense, so they just played in transition, which they've been doing all game. Unfortunately, he got right to the rim for the layup."
Six Rockets scored in double figures, with Harden leading the way with a game-high 39 points plus 11 assists. Reserve guard Eric Gordon totaled 18 points, including consecutive 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter for a 103-97 lead.
After Harden extended that advantage to 123-118 with his fourth 3-pointer at the 1:28 mark, Nuggets guard Will Barton answered with a trey, a steal, and a three-point play through a Gordon foul for the lead with 42.1 seconds remaining.
Barton tallied 24 points off the bench for the Nuggets (33-37), who fell to 0-3 against Houston this season. Center Nikola Jokic dominated to the tune of 22 points, 13 boards and eight assists while Gary Harris scored a team-high 28 points.
Denver shot 51.2 percent (44 of 86) from the floor including 12 of 29 on 3s. The Nuggets added 24-of-26 shooting from the foul line and produced a 48-35 advantage on the glass. But they had no answer for Harden when he hit the gas.
"A tough loss," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "We had the game won I thought, and you lose it on a coast-to-coast layup by James Harden, which is really a tough way to go down."
The Rockets got off to a blazing start, connecting on 4 of 6 3s by the 5:06 mark of the first quarter for a 21-13 lead they stretched to 13 before Denver shot its way into contention, doing so while Houston missed six consecutive 3-pointers.
By the time Harden ended that drought with a corner 3 with 5:40 left in the half, the Nuggets had surged in front. Denver held Houston to one basket over a span five-plus minutes bridging the first and second, building a 20-8 run in the interim.
Once in possession of the lead, the Nuggets seemingly scored unabated, teasing Houston by allowing the deficit to slip to a point only to respond time and again in the third. Jokic tallied nine points in the period to help keep the Rockets at bay.
It wasn't until Trevor Ariza sank a corner 3 that Houston pulled even at 85-85, and when Denver reclaimed the lead just prior to the end of the period, the Rockets returned fire with a hail of 3s to move back in front early in the fourth. The lead changed hands three times in the period as Harden capped the drama.
"He gives you an example every night," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of Harden and his MVP candidacy. "If something's better out there, I've never seen it and I've been around. I'm old and I've been around and never seen anything better."
-- Initially announced as questionable, Nuggets F Wilson Chandler (right groin) and F Danilo Gallinari (left knee) were downgraded to out. Chandler missed his third consecutive game, Gallinari his second, leaving Denver coach Mike Malone "hopeful" that both could return on Wednesday against the Cavaliers.
-- Rockets G James Harden recorded his 25th game with 30-plus points and 10-plus assists this season. He had eight such games in 2015-16.
-- Nuggets F Darrell Arthur did not make the trip to Houston and remains sidelined with knee soreness. There is no timetable for his return.