Given the chance to go head to head with one of his biggest competitors for the award, Harden and the Rockets came out on top.
Harden scored 33 points and Cleveland star LeBron James missed a pair of free throws with 4.2 seconds left in overtime, helping the Rockets hold on for a 105-103 win over the Cavaliers on Sunday.
Harden dismissed any talk that the performance was some sort of statement about the league's MVP award.
"Every game is a statement for me," said Harden, who leads the NBA in scoring. "I'm just out here trying to prove myself -- trying to win games."
It's worked well so far. Harden has led the Rockets to five straight wins, a 41-18 record and the third seed in the Western Conference with fellow star Dwight Howard out with a knee problem.
James hit a 3-pointer with 43.5 seconds left to get Cleveland within one. Harden and James got tangled up on Houston's next possession, but no foul was called and the shot clock expired.
James drove into the lane and was fouled by Josh Smith, but he missed both free throws to finish 3 for 11 at the line.
"There is no excuse. I missed free throws," James said. "I missed the two biggest ones of the game to put us up with seconds on the clock and I didn't come through. I failed my teammates."
Harden, who had his 26th 30-point game this season, added a free throw and Cleveland missed a 3 at the buzzer.
James finished with 37 points after resting during Friday night's 93-86 loss at Indiana. He returned for a chippy contest that had multiple technicals and a flagrant foul by Harden on James.
"It was old-school basketball," James said. "When you have two teams with the same aspirations and trying to get better every day, it can get like that."
A long jumper by J.R. Smith put Cleveland in front in overtime, but Houston scored the next five points. Patrick Beverley made a go-ahead 3 and Smith hit two foul shots to make it 104-100 with 2:21 remaining.
The Cavaliers had a chance for the win in regulation but James held the ball until right before the buzzer and his jump shot bounced off the rim.
The loss ended Cleveland's 10-game winning streak against the Western Conference and prevented the Cavs from moving into first in the Central Division. Cleveland has won 18 of 22 but has dropped two straight.
James and Beverley got into a brief skirmish in the second half after Beverley fouled James on a shot. With both players on the ground, James pushed Beverley down as he tried to get up and Beverley pushed him back. The players were separated and both were given technical fouls.
Harden got a flagrant foul when he kicked in the direction of James' crotch as he fell as James tried to grab the ball from him late in the third. James was pulled away from Harden as he screamed at him, and Brewer and Cleveland's Tristan Thompson both received technical fouls from the ensuing argument.
"That's not a basketball play and the league will probably take a look at it," James said. "I have no idea why he would do that."
Harden said it was just a reaction.
After the game, James took to Instagram to say he was not fretting about any lingering hangover from the tough loss:
Cavaliers: Coach David Blatt said Irving was re-evaluated on Saturday and they expect him to return on Tuesday. ... G/F Shawn Marion missed his fourth straight game with a left hip strain.
Rockets: Howard remains out with swelling in his right knee. There is no timetable for his return. ... The Rockets won the first meeting with Cleveland this season 105-93 without James.
CHECK IT OUT
The Rockets unveiled an exhibit called "Legends Lockers" on the upper concourse of the Toyota Center featuring lockers and memorabilia from 11 greats of the franchise. Included in the exhibit are lockers for owner Leslie Alexander and Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Rudy Tomjanovich, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Steve Francis and Calvin Murphy.
Alexander, Olajuwon, Hayes and Murphy were on hand to open the exhibit.
Olajuwon said he loves returning to watch the team and "it's much more fun right now because I don't have to play."
Cavaliers: Host Boston on Tuesday.
Rockets: Visit Atlanta on Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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