Now the Golden State Warriors have the Western Conference finals in their grasp.
Stephen Curry scored 33 points before Harden lost the ball in the closing seconds to end a spectacular duel between the NBA MVP and runner-up, and the Warriors held off the Houston Rockets 99-98 on Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
"Sometimes I want to crack open a beer and get a courtside seat. These two guys are the two best basketball players in the world," Warriors centre Andrew Bogut said.
Harden rallied the Rockets from 17 points down in the second quarter and had a chance to finish off the comeback in the fourth. Instead, Klay Thompson and Curry trapped Harden, who lost the ball as time expired.
Harden fell to the floor and put his hands over his head as the Warriors celebrated on the court, the sellout crowd of 19,596 roared, and golden-yellow confetti fell from the rafters.
"Kicking chairs," Harden said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating to give the game away like that."
Harden had 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, and Dwight Howard overcame a sprained left knee that slowed him down to finish with 19 points and 17 rebounds for a Rockets team headed home in a major hole.
Game 3 is Saturday in Houston, which is facing a two-game deficit again. The Rockets overcame a 3-1 hole in the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"We're not going to go anywhere," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We're just going to keep standing here and swinging."
Curry made five 3-pointers to go with six assists and three rebounds. He got a big boost from his teammates — notably Bogut, Draymond Green and Thompson — to regroup after the Warriors lost the big lead in the first half.
But the Warriors pulled ahead late in the fourth quarter because of Curry — with his shot and his passes.
Curry connected on a 3-pointer, then found Bogut under the rim for a layup that sent the 7-footer flexing his muscles and shouting to the roaring, yellow-shirt wearing crowd. Bogut missed the ensuing free throw, but the Warriors led 96-89 with 2:25 left.
Harden brought Houston back and the Rockets also forced the Warriors into an 8-second, backcourt violation before Harden found Howard for an alley-oop that sliced Golden State's lead to 99-98 with 33 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, Harrison Barnes missed a difficult reverse layup contested by Howard as the shot clock nearly expired. Harden got the ball down the court, and McHale elected not to call timeout because his team had the Warriors scrambling and outmanned.
"I will take our best player heading downhill on a broken court any day of the week. That's where he feasts," McHale said.
Harden was defended by Thompson and Curry came over near the 3-point line, where Harden lost the ball. Time expired amid the scramble.
"You knew he probably wasn't going to pass," Curry said. "At that point, it's just don't let him get a shot off and try to be the hero."
The Warriors bench ran onto the court in celebration. Harden lay on the floor until teammates helped him up.
"I just wanted to stay big and force a contested shot," Thompson said. "Steph made a great read with that double team."
The play ended a fast-paced, back-and-forth contest — one that saw the Rockets rally the same way the Warriors did in Game 1, when they came back from a 16-point deficit in the second quarter.
"A little too drama-filled for us," Curry said.
Howard wore a black brace over his sprained left knee. He lacked the usual lift in his legs — unable to contest many of those rim-rattling dunks — but still produced on both ends.
Even still, the Rockets turned to Harden when they needed a charge. He helped Houston regroup with a 23-6 run in the second quarter as they took advantage of Golden State's sloppy turnovers (17 in all), tying the score at 55-all at the half.
Thompson, Barnes and Leandro Barbosa took turns guarding Harden in the second half, when both teams struggled to contain the other's leading man.
"It's great competition," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "It's two teams that really want to get to the finals."
Rockets: Houston is 0-6 against the Warriors this season. ... The Rockets haven't won at Golden State since Dec. 13, 2013.
Warriors: Golden State is 45-3 at home this season, including 6-1 in the playoffs. ... The Warriors are 54-0 when leading by at least 15 points at any point in a game this season.
AMONG THE CROWD
Former San Francisco Giants slugger and home run king Barry Bonds shook hands with several Warriors players before the game. ... Montell Jordan sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem and performed his 1995 hit song "This Is How We Do It" at halftime. ... Oakland native and rapper MC Hammer and actor Blake Anderson, the star of the TV series "Workaholics," also were among the crowd.