CLEVELAND — All Houston coach Kevin McHale had to do was remind Dwight Howard the Cavaliers didn't have a center to stop him.
Once he did, the Cavaliers didn't have a chance either.
Howard grabbed eight of his 19 rebounds in the decisive fourth quarter and James Harden scored 21 points as the Rockets roared past Cleveland for a 105-93 win Wednesday night over the Cavs, who played their sixth straight game without LeBron James.
The Rockets broke away with a 15-5 run in the fourth and handed the Cavs their seventh loss in nine games. Corey Brewer made a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight consecutive points in Houston's spree.
But it was Howard who made the biggest difference. He dominated at both ends, scoring nine of his 17 points in the final 12 minutes while imposing his will on the Cavs.
"The whole game changed when Dwight just got every rebound," McHale said. "They were beating us up on the boards. We were complaining a lot in the huddle about us being better on the boards. He probably took it to heart. "
Kyrie Irving scored a season-high 38 and Kevin Love added 17 points and 16 rebounds for the Cavs, who lost their fourth straight at home. J.R. Smith went scoreless in 19 minutes in his Cleveland debut. The unpredictable guard was acquired earlier in the week from the Knicks along with guard Iman Shumpert.
As the game was tipping off, James said he's on target to return in a week from a strained back and left knee.
The Cavs need him. They fell to 1-6 overall without the four-time league MVP, and with an upcoming trip out West, things could get a lot rougher for a team expected to contend for a title.
James, who hasn't played since Dec. 28, will accompany the Cavs on their five-game trip and said "it's a possible chance I'll play on the trip, at some point." He's one week into a rehab program and could be back for a Jan. 15 game against the Lakers.
During the game, the Cavs pulled off their second big trade in three days, acquiring 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov from Denver in exchange for two first-round draft picks. The Cavs could have used Mozgov in the second half to battle Howard, who grabbed 12 boards after halftime and even jawed with some Cleveland fans in the final minutes.
"We challenged him to rebound and he got every one of them," McHale said. "If we missed it, he got it. If they missed it, he got it. That's a good combination for us."
Howard didn't recall McHale's pep talk, but something got him going.
"I just saw some opportunities to where instead of just watching the shot, I was fighting for the rebound," Howard said. "I've got to start doing more of that when things aren't going at the offensive end, just go get it off the glass."
The Cavs led 74-73 after three quarters and were within 80-79 on Matthew Dellavedova's 3-pointer before the Rockets grabbed control.
Howard scored inside and Brewer knocked down his two 3s and a pair of free throws to make it 88-79. Harden's 3-pointer gave Houston a 98-86 lead with 2:19 left, but the Cavs wouldn't go away and were within seven when Houston's Josh Smith nailed a long 3 to finally finish off Cleveland.
Irving, who missed Monday's loss in Philadelphia with a sore back, scored 23 in the first half, making 9 of 11 shots and moving with his usual cat-like quickness on drives.
Harden, the NBA's leading scorer at 27 points per game, was just 2 of 10 from the field in the opening half.
As expected, Smith didn't immediately mesh with his new teammates during his first minutes on the floor. The Cavs traded for him to add scoring, and they added Shumpert to improve their defense.
"I just never got into a rhythm," Smith said.
McHale had high praise for Irving, who went 15 of 26 from the floor and made four 3-pointers.
"He's slippery," McHale said. "Our biggest problem with him, other than the fact he's a good player, is we kept digging for the ball. The guy's got it on a string. Every time we'd dig, he's just go by us."
Rockets: G Patrick Beverley, who strained his left shoulder Monday, started and scored seven points in 30 minutes. ... Houston snapped a three-game road losing streak.
Cavaliers: The Cavs hope to have Mozgov in time for Friday's game in Golden State. ... General manager David Griffin said Shumpert will miss at least two more weeks before he can return to the floor. He's missed 66 games the last four seasons. ... Cleveland is just 4-7 against Western Conference teams.
Rockets: At New York on Thursday.
Cavaliers: At Golden State on Friday.