It was a night to forget for the Indiana Pacers as they were handed their worst loss of the season in a 112-86 defeat at the hands of the Houston Rockets on Friday. With the loss, the Pacers are now in the midst of their first three-game losing streak of the season.
While it's been all doom and gloom for Indiana lately, victories like this illustrate why the Rockets are genuine title contenders. They can be so good offensively that in a flash, they're up 20 points. That's how it was tonight.
Houston held a 50-43 lead heading into the second half. Indiana would get to within three points, 50-47, before the Rockets went on a blinding 21-3 run, per NBA on ESPN:
James Harden was hitting everything in sight and scored 16 points in the third quarter alone, making six of his eight field-goal attempts:
He had an emphatic dunk on a fast break that put an exclamation point on the Rockets' third-quarter run and seemingly closed the door on the Pacers. Harden isn't considered much of a skywalker, but he brought the house down with this one.
The fifth-year star said after the game that the third quarter was some of the Rockets' best basketball all season, per Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle:
Harden led all scorers with 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc. He added four rebounds and four assists. Dwight Howard jokingly tried to take credit for his teammate's strong shooting performance, per Houston's Instagram:
You'd have expected Houston to have the edge on the perimeter, with its abundance of long-range shooters. It hit 13 three-pointers, compared to seven for Indiana.
What was a little more surprising was its success in the paint. The Rockets outscored the Pacers 48-30 in that regard. Underneath, Howard was negating Roy Hibbert's defensive presence. He would finish with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Howard said that the 114-81 defeat in Indiana back on Dec. 20 was a major motivating factor coming into Friday night, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Perhaps both he and Harden were also inspired by two Rockets legends sitting courtside, per the team's Twitter account:
ESPN's Daily Dime thought that Hakeem Olajuwon must've been watching like a proud papa as Howard was getting the better of Hibbert:
Hibbert could only muster nine points, three rebounds and three blocks.
Paul George wasn't much better, scoring 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Before the game, he admitted that back stiffness was an issue and that he wasn't sure if he'd be 100 percent, per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star.
Mark Montieth of Pacers.com thought that George's back was clearly giving him problems, as he was struggling to lock down Harden on the perimeter:
As mentioned earlier, Houston looked like one of the best teams in the league on Friday night. The Rockets did a great job turning defense into offense, scoring 21 fast break points. They kept piling it on in the third quarter, not allowing the Pacers one moment to breathe.
Early in the season, Houston took a lot of heat for its poor defense and general inconsistency. The Rockets beat the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 30 and then surrendered 109 points to the Utah Jazz in a loss on Dec. 2. There were also the home and road losses to the Sacramento Kings.
Ever since the calendar rolled over to 2014, though, something has changed with this team. Its gone 21-6 in the new year, and Houston is showing no signs of stopping any time soon.
From an Indiana perspective, it's important not to get too worked up about one loss to a very good team on the road. The Pacers aren't going to play this bad too often. After the game, the players seemed more determined than anything else, per Buckner:
The only real negative is George's injury. Who knows if whatever stiffness he's suffering from will go away or continue to linger? It doesn't take a basketball expert to see that the Pacers' defense relies heavily on having a healthy George out on the perimeter. Without that, Harden went off on Friday night, and that could be a problem in the playoffs against a team like the Miami Heat.
For the time being, though, teams in the Eastern Conference might want to avoid the state of Texas for the rest of the season, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst joked:
Key Player Grades
James Harden, Houston Rockets: A
Maybe James Harden should wear a cowboy hat before every game:
The star guard shot the lights out in the Toyota Center. If he would've played at all in the fourth quarter, he might have dropped 40. Perhaps the most impressive part of Harden's performance was that he didn't try and force too many shots. He remained patient, waiting for open looks. And if a shot wasn't there, he didn't hesitate in finding a teammate in a better position to score.
Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: A-
Dwight Howard's performance was earning rave reviews on Twitter.
Feigen picked out a sequence in the third quarter where Howard absolutely bossed Roy Hibbert:
It got to the point where Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick wondered if the idea of Hibbert's defensive presence in the paint has been over-hyped:
Howard certainly showed flashes of his old self, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers: C+
Harden no doubt benefited from a Paul George who was less than 100 percent. George is one of the best players in the league, so when he's anything less than 100 percent, the Pacers will suffer. As good of a defensive team as they are, it all revolves around George.
Houston travels to Portland on Sunday to take on the Trail Blazers, and then it's another trip back to Oklahoma City for James Harden, with the Rockets playing the Thunder next Tuesday.
The Pacers are also off on Saturday, heading to Dallas for a game against the Mavericks on Sunday and then what should be an easy four-game stretch during which they face the Philadelphia 76ers twice, the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons.