HOUSTON -- Usually it's a highly respected opponent that ignites the Cavaliers fire.
On Thursday night in the Toyota Center, the officiating crew also poked the bear.
LeBron James vehemently protested a backcourt turnover with 4:13 remaining in the second quarter, firing the ball at referee Tony Brown, then slapping away the hand of Marat Kogut. The incident turned up the intensity in a game where the Cavs had been trading 2-pointers for the Houston Rockets' 3s.
The energy never waned as the Rockets fought off the Cavs 117-113 in a nationally televised game on TNT.
In a play that typified the night, center Clint Capela scored an and-one with 1:10 remaining. James Harden emerged from a loose-ball scrum and heaved it toward the hoop, with Capela catching it for a slam as he was fouled by Jeff Green.
After a field goal by James, Capela rebounded a weak shot by Harden and put in a layup, giving the Rockets a 117-113 lead with 10.7 seconds left.
Capela blocked James' shot with five second left and Green missed as time expired.
Cavs had won two of their last three, the victories coming against Eastern Conference contenders Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks. But even a better defensive effort could not stop Rockets star Harden, who recorded his second triple-double of the season and 33rd of his career with 35 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists.
The Rockets, on pace for a record-setting number of 3-point attempts this season, fired up 46 attempts from beyond the arc and hit 16, which helped six players score in double figures. Capela had 19 points and 13 rebounds, hitting 7-of-9 shots.
James led the Cavs with 33 points, four rebounds and seven assists and Green scored a season-high 27, his most since January 2016 when he was with the Memphis Grizzlies. Green totaled 20 in the second quarter as the Cavs erased an 18-point deficit.
Kevin Love contributed 17 points and six rebounds before fouling out with 2:01 left and J.R. Smith added 13 points. He was still wearing a James model shoe for extra bounce after they helped him to a slump-busting 20 Tuesday.
While the effort was there for the Cavs, the statistic that might bother them most was their 19 turnovers, nine by James, that turned into 38 Rockets' points. Conversely, the Rockets committed 22 -- 11 in the second period -- that led to 22 points for the Cavs. It marked the third time this season that James gave the ball away at least eight times.
The Cavs were without point guard Derrick Rose, sidelined with a sore left ankle, but Iman Shumpert started and continued to play well of late. Shumpert dished out a season-high five assists to go with seven points.
After the Cavs grabbed an 18-12 lead, the Rockets went on a turnover-aided 17-0 run. Then with 4:16 left in the first quarter, James went down after turning his left ankle, the same one that kept him out virtually all of training camp. The Cavs quickly called timeout as James stayed in the game.
The surge didn't end until James hit a fallaway at the 3:16 mark and by then the Rockets led 29-20.
The Cavs trailed 36-25 at the end of the first quarter, hitting just 2 of their last 11 field goal attempts in the period. They also lost six turnovers, which resulted in nine Rockets' points.
But the Cavs got back in the game thanks to Green, whose 20-point quarter was the best of his career. After not taking a shot in 4 1/2 minutes in the first period, Green went wild in the second, hitting 8-of-9 field goals, including his only 3-point attempt, and all three free throws.
But the Cavs also got angry, especially James, after the turnover call with the Cavs trailing 59-53 as what looked like a football game broke out. The incident turned up the level of physicality for both teams. James scored eight points to close out the quarter and had 16 in the period, one bucket coming on a vicious slam on a fast break when Smith fed the trailing James.
James had a minus-9 plus/minus rating in the first quarter and a plus-19 in the second.
The Cavs roared ahead 67-65 at the half as the Rockets turned the ball over 11 times in the second quarter and the Cavs profited for 22 points. The Cavs hit 17-of-23 field goals in the second period and had four turnovers that led to three points.
The start of the game looked like a bad matchup for the Cavs, who rank last in the league in 3-point defense (allowing 41.9 percent) and defensive efficiency.
That played right into the hands of the Rockets, who came in taking 53.4 percent of their shots from 3-point range, up from 46.2 percent last season. That projects to over 3,600 attempts from long range after they set a league record with 3,306 in 2016-17. No other team had ever gone over 2,800.
"We've got to do a good job just closing out, making those guys put the ball on the floor, get to the basket," Lue said. "We know they shoot 45 3s a game, and they take a lot of tough shots also, so, they're going to make some shots, but we can't hang our head. We've got to make sure we're doing everything the right way defensively. And they're going to make some tough shots -- Harden and 1/8Eric3/8 Gordon and Ryan Anderson. It's just part of the game."
The Rockets were without half of their dynamic guard duo, with Chris Paul sidelined with a left knee injury. But the Cavs were still faced with the challenge of trying to stop five-time All-Star James Harden, who came in averaging 29.5 points (third in the league), 4.4 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 1.55 steals per game. Harden scored a career-high 56 points against Utah on Sunday.
"When D'Antoni got here, he just really helped blossom 1/8Harden's3/8 game," Lue said of coach Mike D'Antoni, who took over the Rockets last season. "They say he didn't really pass the basketball, then he's top three in assists last year. Just having the ball in his hands, make the right play, make guys better around him, he's done a great job of that because we all know he can score."
Bucks' star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points Tuesday and the Wizards' Bradley Beal 36 Friday and the Cavs still won. Lue knew he might have to concede a big night to Harden.
"You've just got to take the other guys away. Harden is tough to stop," Lue said. "He's going to get to the free-throw line, he's going to make shots. He's averaging 10 3-point shots a game. He's one of the leading scorers in this league. If we do a good job trying to make it tough for him, keep him off the free-throw line and then do a better job of just taking away the other guys ..."
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