The Pacers threatened for just one shining moment on Sunday, when the reserves sliced Houston’s 17-point lead at the end of the first quarter to five less than four minutes into the second period, forcing a timeout.
But that was that. The other 42 minutes of their 118-95 loss to Houston at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was as thoroughly as they’ve been dominated all season, and evidence of the deception of their 5-3 start. Clearly, they have a long way to go.
The Rockets can be a good role model. They’re now 11-3, the best record in the Western Conference, and have won six consecutive games. And that’s without All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who injured his left knee in the season opener. James Harden entered Sunday’s game ranked second in the NBA in scoring and assists, and was coming off a 38-point game on Saturday. He had “just” 26 points on 9-of-21 shooting against the Pacers, but had 15 assists — nine in the first quarter.
Regardless of his stat line, he controlled the game like a maestro conductor. Bojan Bogdanovic, Victor Oladipo, Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph, and Myles Turner all got turns against him, and all failed to varying degrees.
Harden is dastardly in pick-and-rolls, shooting three-pointers if defenders go under the screen, taking slower players off the dribble for layups if they don’t and sliding behind-the-back passes to rolling big men when they’re open. He’s made a force out of center Clint Capela, who is virtually unknown to fans of most Eastern Conference teams. Capela finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds on Sunday, needing just 12 shots to get nine field goals.
If the rolling screen-setter didn’t have a shot, someone hanging out beyond the 3-point line often did.
“They have so many guys spaced out and a guy in Clint Capela…all he does is set a screen and roll to the basket,” said Young, who suffered through a scoreless performance in which he missed all seven field goal attempts. “It puts so much pressure on the defense when you have to (honor the penetrating player) and try to get out to those 3-point shooters.”
The Pacers were supposed to be the beneficiaries of a scheduling advantage in this game. They were coming off a win in Chicago on Friday and an afternoon practice on Saturday. Houston, meanwhile, had played at home Saturday night. Tipoff for Sunday’s game was less than 20 hours after that game — a 15-point victory over Memphis — had ended.
And yet the Rockets were the more energetic team, jumping to a 13-2 lead and forcing Pacers coach Nate McMillan to call a timeout with 8:40 still to play in the first period.
“They just came out ready,” Young said. “Shooting, shooting, shooting. We have to be prepared as a team ready to match their energy.”
“When they get off to a fast start, there’s no looking back,” added Oladipo, who led the Pacers with 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting. “You have to have a great start to beat a team like that in a 48-minute game.
“We had a little trouble matching up in transition.”
The Pacers had trouble matching up in the halfcourt, too. A lot of it, mostly because of the maze of pick-and-rolls the Rockets make opponents traverse. Houston doesn’t kill teams with accuracy — it ranks just 23rd in the NBA in 3-point accuracy — it does it with volume. If it keeps firing bombs, it figures enough of them will land to do the required damage. It hit 17-of-47 of them on Sunday. The Pacers shot a slightly better percentage, hitting 8-of-22. But those additional nine 3-pointers gave the Rockets 27 additional points from behind the line, more than enough in their 23-point victory.
Houston’s relentless cool was displayed after that Pacers’ run to start the second period. After a timeout, Eric Gordon dropped a 3-pointer after running off a screen and taking an inbound pass on Houston’s first possession. Then, after Domantas Sabonis scored for the Pacers, P.J. Tucker hit another 3-pointer to extend Houston’s lead to nine.
By the time the half was over, the Rockets had hit two more 3-pointers and scored via all the ways they can score to regain a 14-point halftime lead that was never threatened. There was Capela’s pick-and-roll dunk off Harden’s behind-the-back pass, and four field goals from Harden, who beat Oladipo, Bogdanovic and Turner one-on-one in the process.
It amounted to show-and-tell for Harden and a clinic for the Pacers, a younger, newer team that aspires to the level of firepower the Rockets display. McMillan has set a goal of at least 110 points and 25 assists each game, and they had been close to that, on average, over the first 13 games. They fell well short of that on Sunday, with 95 points and 18 assists.
That was partly the result of Houston’s defense, which has been upgraded with the addition of the personnel acquired in the offseason. It allowed 109.6 points last season, but is giving up just 102.9 so far this season. The Pacers struggled to find good shots against it, although some of the wounds were self-inflicted.
“You’ve got to make reads when teams start switching as much as they do,” McMillan said. “It forces you to take advantage of the advantage that you have, and we didn’t do that. We had (6-foot-5) James Harden and (6-foot-4) Eric Gordon guarding our bigs in the post; you’ve got to score in that situation. It’s not anything we haven’t seen, we just didn’t capitalize tonight.”
There’s a long season still ahead for the Pacers to learn to do that. Houston, at least, showed them how much work lies ahead of them.
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