INDIANAPOLIS – From the outset of Sunday night’s game, the Indiana Pacers seemed like they were running uphill. They were playing one of the NBA’s best teams, the Houston Rockets, and they have been on a roll.
Leading from start to finish, the Rockets rolled to a 118-95 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, handing the Pacers (6-8) their fifth loss in their last six games. This wasn’t a listless performance by the Pacers, who were led by Victor Oladipo (28 points). This was simply the Rockets (11-3) showing why they are legit championship contenders, winning their sixth straight game, despite playing in Houston on Saturday night, before a late-night flight to Indianapolis.
► BOX SCORE: Rockets 118, Pacers 95
Nobody has an answer these days on how best to defend Rockets guard James Harden (26 points, 15 assists, five rebounds). By the end of the first quarter, Harden already had nine assists. He threw alley-oop passes to Clint Capela (20 points, 17 rebounds) that led to thunderous dunks. He drew Pacers defenders, then kicked the ball to Eric Gordon (21 points) for wide open 3.
When passing was not his best option, Harden simply scored. It did not matter who guarded him. If it was a bigger player like Bojan Bogdanovic or Myles Turner, Harden put the ball on the floor and dribbled around them, or drew fouls. If it was a smaller player, Harden went to his patented step-back move and made 3s.
“I go into every game with the mindset of being aggressive,” said Harden. “We got off to a really good start tonight. Lately we’ve gotten off to slow starts. We’re preaching it, getting off to better starts and not trying to fight our way back into games We’ve been doing that as of late.”
The Pacers never seriously carved into the Rockets’ lead in the second half. They were the better team and it showed.
The Pacers have several days to regroup before their road game Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s game:
1. Thanks to Harden, the Pacers’ defensive resurgence was short-lived.
The Pacers felt their defense was on the right track after Friday night’s victory in Chicago. But they were not playing the Bulls on Sunday, and the Pacers’ defense was carved up by Harden and company. Too often, the Pacers were slow to rotate, leaving Gordon or someone else with a wide open 3-pointer. The Rockets are a good 3-point shooting team, and that is a huge part of their offense. But the Pacers wanted to make the Rockets take contested 3s, not give them wide open looks. Back to the drawing board on the defensive end.
“James is just a special player with his ability to not only score, but assist the ball,” said Pacers coach Nate McMillan. “We did pretty much everything you could do, except stop him.”
2. Lance Stephenson may be in line to play more minutes, particularly when the first unit struggles.
Stephenson (eight points, 10 rebounds) was energetic and effective in this losing effort. He only played 24 minutes, but the Pacers’ energy level went up with Stephenson in the game. Stephenson still did not shoot well (2 for 7), but he pushed the tempo and helped spark a second-quarter rally that temporarily got the Pacers back into the game. If Stephenson continues to play like this, McMillan will have to think about giving him a little more time. But McMillan made it clear that defense remained a high priority.
“We want guys who are going to play both ways,” said McMillan. “I’m not judging Lance, or our team, on one side of the floor. When Harden went off the floor, we were able to get some things going and Lance was part of that second group. I look at both sides of the ball with our guys. We got to be a team that plays two ways.”
3. The Pacers are always better with Domantas Sabonis (17 points, five rebounds) on the floor.
Sabonis scored the Pacers’ first eight points of the second quarter and gave them a lift when they still had a reasonable chance to win the game. He was their only consistent inside presence on a night when Thaddeus Young was scoreless on 0 for 7 shooting, and Turner (13 points, eight rebounds) encountered foul trouble in the third quarter.
Sabonis and Turner were on the floor together at times, and don’t be surprised to see more of that moving forward. Young has been playing well, save for this game, so you would not expect his role as a starter to change. But Sabonis’ power game is a nice complement to Turner, who can slide over to power forward from center when Sabonis enters the game.
Young has played a lot of minutes this year, and it showed in this game. Now that Sabonis and Turner are healthy, the Pacers can utilize both of those big men together, particularly in game-deciding moments.
Follow IndyStar sports writer Clifton Brown on Twitter @CliftonGBrown.