HOUSTON >> James Harden strengthened his case for the MVP award with a career-high 51 points, and the Houston Rockets squandered a huge early lead but held on for a 115-111 win over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
Houston was up by nine with about eight minutes left when Sacramento used a 9-2 spurt to get within 104-102 with 5 1/2 remaining. An 8-0 run by Harden, which he capped with a 3-point play, pushed the lead to 112-104.
Four straight points by the Kings cut the lead to four with less than a minute left, but they didn’t score after that.
DeMarcus Cousins led the Kings with his second career triple-double with 24 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists after missing Monday’s game to rest. He also had six blocks.
Wednesday’s performance surpassed Harden’s previous career best of 50 points, which came on March 19. It’s his 33rd 30-point game this season and the ninth time he’s scored 40 this season, which both lead the NBA.
Harden, who scored 17 points in the third quarter, had 49 points before knocking down a pair of free throws with less than two minutes left to eclipse his previous high-point game.
The Rockets led by as many as 19 points in the first half before Sacramento rallied to take the lead early in the third quarter.
Harden tied a career best with eight 3-pointers, and Trevor Ariza had six and finished with 22 points.
Both teams played without a star. The Rockets were missing Dwight Howard, who isn’t playing both games of back-to-backs since returning from a two-month absence with swelling in his right knee. He’ll play Thursday night at Dallas.
Sacramento’s Rudy Gay, who is averaging 20.9 points a game, sat out after getting a concussion Monday night
The game was tied at 70 after a 3-pointer by Ben McLemore with about 7 minutes left in the third quarter. Houston used a 9-2 run to take a 79-72 lead. Ray McCallum’s 3-pointer soon after that got Sacramento within 5, before Harden took over.
He scored their next 11 points, while the Kings managed just one basket, to extend the lead to 93-79 with two minutes left in the quarter.
The Rockets led 97-86 entering the fourth quarter.
Houston led by five early in the third quarter before Sacramento scored six straight points, with four from Cousins, to take a 61-60 lead.
The Rockets were up by 19 after opening the second quarter with an 11-0 run, powered by three 3-pointers by Ariza. The Kings got going after that, using a 14-2 spurt, punctuated by a dunk by Cousins, to cut the lead to 48-41 midway through the quarter.
A 3-pointer by Harden a couple of minutes later made it 54-45, but Sacramento scored the next eight points to get within 54-53 two minutes before halftime.
Terrence Jones had a highlight in that span when he blocked three layups by Carl Landry on the same possession. After the third one, Harden finally grabbed the rebound to give Houston the ball.
The Rockets outscored the Kings 4-2 the rest of the half to hold on to a 58-55 lead at halftime.
Kings: The Kings aren’t sure when Gay will return. He must pass the league-mandated concussion protocol before playing again. … The 10 assists by Cousins tied a career high.
Rockets: Joey Dorsey started in place of Howard and seven points and 11 rebounds. … Jones returned on Wednesday after missing six games with a partially collapsed lung and tied a career high with seven blocks.
Kings: Host New Orleans on Friday.
Rockets: Visit Dallas on Thursday.