But that all changed Monday night.
Harden scored 31 points and Howard battled through foul trouble and a head cold he picked up over the weekend to chip in with 10 points and 10 rebounds, handing the Bobcats only their second loss in the past 11 games at home.
Houston had lost three straight before Howard decided to sit out and rest a nagging ankle injury. The Rockets quickly started rolling without him, winning the next three games by an average of 23 points.
"Dwight is a great talent and you figure a way to get him in," Harden said. "He didn't score the ball well tonight, but he had 10 rebounds and did so many other things. He held Al Jefferson to a fewer amount of points. It doesn't always show up in the stat sheet, but we know how important he is to our team."
Jefferson still finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds for Charlotte, but many of those came when Howard was sitting out after picking up a pair of offensive fouls -- his third and fourth of the game -- in the third quarter.
"I was trying to play through [being sick] and the conditioning, but the important part is we got the win," Howard said.
Terrence Jones added 18 points and seven rebounds in the victory and Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley had backbreaking 3-pointers on consecutive possessions in the final two minutes to seal the victory.
The Rockets (48-22) entered 1 ½ games behind the Los Angeles Clippers in the race for third place in the Western Conference and riding a wave of confidence having shot 54.7 percent during the recent three-game win streak.
The turning point came late in the third quarter with the Bobcats leading 66-65.
Harden took over, helping Houston close the quarter with a 13-2 run to build a double-digit lead. Harden scored 10 points during that crucial stretch, including a breakaway left-handed dunk and a fall away 3-pointer. He was fouled after another 3-point attempt and sank all three shots.
The Bobcats got to within five on a jumper by Jefferson in the lane, but Parsons and Beverley each hit 3s to push the lead to 98-87 with one minute left in the game.
"Chandler made a really big transition 3 and Pat made a big 3 in the corner that kind of sealed the game," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Kemba Walker had 22 points to lead Charlotte.
The Bobcats (34-37) came in having won seven of their past 10 -- including a 30-point victory over Portland on Saturday night -- and looking to gain ground on Washington in the race for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But they shot just 37 percent from the field.
"The ball movement just wasn't the same tonight. We didn't have a James Harden," Jefferson said.
Few teams do.
At times, Harden was hitting step-back jump shots that not even the league's best defenders could stop.
Jefferson called Harden the best 1-on-1 player in the game.
"He didn't do anything that surprised me tonight," Jefferson said. "He's an amazing player."
It was Harden's 18th 30-point game this season.
"He just took over," McHale said. "He's been fantastic and playing the right way. He had 31 [points] on 19 shots. And he's making the right play. He's making great passes and he led us in assists" with five.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver attended the game. Silver said he would like to see Charlotte host the NBA All-Star Game in the near future. "The process is for them to apply. We've had our events department down here to survey the building and there are some upgrades to the building that are needed. Part of the understanding is to assure the building remains state-of-the-art ... but I'd love to bring the All-Star Game back here. It's a hotbed of basketball and the only thing they have to do is apply." ... Team owner Michael Jordan took in the game from the end of the Bobcats bench. ... Houston has won seven straight against Charlotte. ... Bobcats coach Steve Clifford picked up his seventh technical of the season.