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Game Day: Rockets at Pacers

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 114-81 loss to the Indiana Pacers

  • Rockets vs. Pacers
    Paul George has 24 points and nine rebounds and Lance Stephenson adds 16 points, leading the Pacers to a 114-81 rout of the Rockets.
  • Putback by Howard
    Dwight Howard cleans up the Aaron Brooks' miss with a nice two-handed putback.
  • Howard Rejects Hibbert
    Dwight Howard slaps Roy Hibbert's shot out of bounds.
HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s Friday night matchup with the Indiana Pacers:

POST-GAME

I could regale you with dark, depressing prose about the Pacers’ 114-81 thumping of the Rockets. I could put on my analyst hat, scour film and crunch numbers in an effort to reveal what went wrong. But really, here’s the only recap you need from the carnage that took place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday night:

That says it all, does it not?

The Pacers proved to be a nightmare matchup for Houston a year ago and their mastery most definitely carried over this evening. Paul George was electric on both ends of the floor en route to tallying 24 points to go along with 9 boards, four dimes and three steals. Indiana’s defense was as stingy as advertised. The Pacers’ bench feasted upon the shorthanded Rockets reserves. And it didn’t help that while Indiana was busy putting its best foot forward, Houston kept tripping over its shoelaces while attempting to keep up.

Rockets Pacers Gallery

>The Pacers came in peeved after having dropped two games in a row for the first time all season. They had a point to prove and, most importantly, possessed the experience and collective know-how to methodically go about the business of doing so.

In that regard, Houston is still very much finding its way. The club has certainly shown glimpses here and there, but consistency remains an issue and injuries continue to hamper their ability acquire it. And very rare is the elixir that serves up a scenario that finds an elite, hungry team playing before its geeked-up home crowd as any sort of ready-made remedy for what currently ails the Rockets.     

“We had no answers for them,” said Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale after the game. “They just played way better than we did. They played more aggressively. They moved the ball well – we didn’t. They attacked us, they got down, spread us out and got 3s – we didn’t. They were just a lot better than we were tonight all the way around.

“We weren’t precise, we weren’t moving, we weren’t breaking down the defense, making them over-help by attacking early. They had us on our heels all night. They got us on our heels in the first quarter and it just kind of stayed that way.”

OBSERVATIONS

- Terrence Jones has been a terrific addition to the Rockets’ starting lineup. With him as a part of that group, Houston’s starting five has produced at an elite rate that places them among the very best opening units in the league. But tonight offered a stark reminder that Jones is just 21-years-old and still has so much to learn.

The Pacers’ left little mystery regarding their strategy in the early going. They went to wily David West early and often and the Rockets killer overwhelmed Jones in the low-post more often than not. West is a throwback of sorts – there aren’t too many big-time power forwards who play the game the way he does. In that regard, tonight’s contest was an outlier for both Jones and the Rockets. Matchups like this scream for the presence of a second beefy big (man, oh man, did Houston sorely miss the injured Omer Asik this evening) and while Jones did his best to handle the assignment given, it’s just not one that’s well within his wheelhouse right now. Chalk this one up as another important lesson in the basketball education of Terrence Jones.

- There were plenty of moments tonight that portended ominous things for Houston. But perhaps the No. 1 sign that this just wasn’t going to be the Rockets’ night occurred when Luis Scola – he of the whopping four career made 3-point field goals – coolly collected the ball and swished a corner trey as if he’d spent his entire life serving as a stretch four. Scola put up 13 points in just 16 minutes of work against his former team on an evening when Indiana’s bench outscored Houston’s 41-18. That sentiment from the previous paragraph about the Rockets missing Asik? Yeah, the exact same thing applies to Jeremy Lin, who missed his third straight game with a back injury suffered a week ago.

- The only bright spot tonight: Dwight Howard was terrific, collecting a double-double by halftime on his way to finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. Bad omen No. 128 of the evening: Howard led his team in each of those categories and assists as well. With two. Ouch.

- Houston trailed by 11 at halftime – never ideal against anyone on the road, but certainly not an unscalable deficit by any means. Except, perhaps, against the Pacers, who came into tonight’s game having outscored their opposition in the second half of games this season by 210 points – the best such mark in the NBA. Sure enough, Indiana began the third quarter by scoring on 11 of its first 15 possessions, punctuating that stretch with a gigantic slam by George. That capped a 21-6 Pacers run, putting them up by 26 while effectively ending any drama that remained regarding tonight’s outcome.

- The ugly numbers that tell the tale: Indiana dominated the 3-point line, hitting 12-of-26 from behind the arc while holding Houston to a 4-for-22 performance from downtown. The Rockets didn’t help themselves at the free throw line, either, knocking down just 13 of their 24 freebies from the charity stripe. Indiana scored 22 points off of Houston’s 14 turnovers. And as if all of that were not bad enough, the typically slow tempo Pacers even owned a decisive 18-8 advantage in fast break points over the run-and-gun Rockets.

- At some point, James Harden is going to enjoy a breakout game against Indiana. He’s simply too good offensively to continue struggling like this. But tonight most definitely was not that night. Harden came into the game owning a 29.7 percent field goal percentage in his six career games against the Pacers – far and away his lowest shooting percentage against any opponent. And that mark will only dip lower after this evening’s contest as the 24-year-old finished just 3-of-14 from the field with five turnovers. Harden’s gimpy left ankle surely didn’t help matters, but full credit where credit is due: George and the Pacers’ suffocating defense make life miserable for a slew of the league’s top scorers and right now Harden is no exception.

- After dropping to 17-10 with tonight’s loss, the Rockets won’t have much time to mope about – a battle with the Detroit Pistons looms less than 24 hours away. Detroit figures to be in a pretty foul mood as well after blowing a 20-point lead on their home floor and losing to the Charlotte Bobcats this evening.

QUOTES

HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE

“(On the first seven minutes) We ran the same play three or four different times. We got different looks off of it. We had no answers for them.  They just played way better than we did.  They played more aggressively, they moved the ball well and we didn’t.  They got down, spread us out, got threes, we didn’t.  They were just a lot better than we were tonight, just all around. (On where the game turned) We battled back a little bit.  The start of the third quarter they got a lot of separation on us.  They had an 11 point lead at half. We didn’t play very well.  We didn’t play very well all night.  When you don’t play well that’s going to happen.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

“(On where it got away from them) They played harder than we did.  They brought a lot of extra energy at the beginning of the third quarter and that’s what set us apart and they were able to get the win.  They are a well-seasoned team.  You can tell they’ve been together for a couple of years.  You can tell in certain situations on the floor when they would run the same play several times in a row but with a different wrinkle and they were able to score every time.  They kicked our ***.”

JAMES HARDEN

“(How do you recover from this kind of loss?) We’ve got a bounce back game tomorrow in Detroit.  We’ve got an opportunity to go up there and play well against them.  That’s how we bounce back.  We got the shots that we wanted but our shots were just not going.  We got good looks but then we’d miss a layup or turn the ball over.  They are a good defensive team but the last several weeks we haven’t moved the ball as well as we were and we’ve got to keep working on that.  (On his ankle) I was definitely bothered by it tonight.  It’s just a continuation of the constant pounding on it.”

PACERS HEAD COACH FRANK VOGEL

“I couldn’t be more proud of our effort and execution, particularly on the defensive end.  We’re really happy with how we played.  This team doesn’t like losing and we had lost two in a row.  We talked about playing mad for four quarters.  (On Danny Granger) Exactly what I thought it would see.  There will be an adjustment period, but for all the questions about him fitting in, he did it at the defensive end, he shared the ball and took shots when he had them.  He was a contributor to the victory, not just an afterthought.  (On George Hill) I know the last game he wished he had played better and when that happens he usually comes out and has a great night.  He’s a big part of what we do at both ends of the court.  (On the defense on James Harden) It’s a team effort.  Paul George battles him on the ball and our team was there to support him.”

PAUL GEORGE

“We came out with a lot of energy.  That’s really how we have to play.  It’s one of those games that we can look at and take a lot out of it.  We came out and played hard from the get go.  I think our defense was phenomenal.  (On how he defended James Harden)  Just make everything tough.  I know he’s a shot maker.  He has the ability to make shots with contested hands.  If he is going to make shots, it was going to have to be over or through me.  (On his offense) I felt good.  I was just playing on the emotions of the crowd.  My teammates were finding me.  I was finding ways to get open and get good looks and was staying in an attack mode.”

GEORGE HILL

“(On Danny Granger) We loved it.  We were hoping he would hit every shot.  But we knew it would be tough to get back into the rhythm.  It’s good to have him back out there.  He’s only going to make us better.  (On coming back from the Miami loss) We always say good teams will bounce back.  That showed we’re a good team, and we played a great basketball team in Houston.  We played great defensively and held a team that can score the ball with the best of them to not a lot of points.  (On the home court advantage) It’s phenomenal.  The fans have been great all season long.”

DANNY GRANGER

“(On his first game back) It felt good.  I made a shot, so I was happy about that.  It felt good just to be back out playing again.  I knew it was going to take a long time to get in a groove.  I was just happy I made one shot, honestly.  I had some turnovers, a little rusty, but it felt good to be playing.  (On the crowd’s reaction and giving him a standing ovation) I didn’t expect it but it was touching.  I’ve been here for a long time and obviously what I’ve been going through the last two years has been hard.  It’s always good to have the support of Indiana.  It was awesome.  Just to be able to play in front of the home crowd again, it was a breath of fresh air.”

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (17-9) at Indiana Pacers (20-5)

Point Differential:

Indiana: +7.3 (NBA rank: 4th)

Houston: +5.2 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Indiana: 102.2 (16th)

Houston: 107.8 (3rd)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Indiana: 94.6 (1st)

Houston: 100.08 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Indiana: 95.03 (23rd)

Houston: 99.01 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Indiana: 49.7% (12th)

Houston: 53.6% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Indiana: 16.2 (20th)

Houston: 17.6 (30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Indiana: 51.6% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 24.6% (20th); defensive rebound rate: 75.4% (9th)

Houston: 52.7% (2nd); offensive rebound rate: 28.1% (7th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (20th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Indiana: .295 (9th)

Houston: .413 (1st)

Tests don’t come much tougher than this. The Pacers literally proved to be a nightmare matchup for Houston last year but, then again, they’ve provoked plenty of other fitful evenings for their opposition around the league since then as well. Indiana currently sits atop the Eastern Conference as if it’s Li’l Sebastian, riding a historically great defense capable of suffocating the life out of even the most prolific of offenses.

Such was the key to the Pacers’ success against Houston a year ago when Indiana went Burt Macklin all over the Rockets’ best laid plans, winning both meetings by an average of nearly 10 points per game. The Pacers dictated the tempo in each matchup, forced turnovers in bunches and Jammed the Rockets’ engine, limiting James Harden to just 25.6 percent shooting from the field. Paul George, meanwhile, blew up like a Pawnee resident at Paunch Burger, averaging 23.5 points, six rebounds, four steals and 4.5 3-pointers per contest. 

Having Dwight Howard in the fold most definitely helps Houston’s cause, as demonstrated during the Rockets’ pair of preseason wins over the Pacers. But make no mistake: the Rockets must be firing on all cylinders – on both ends of the floor – if they’re to escape Indianapolis with a win this evening, especially in light of the fact that the Pacers figure to be more ornery than Ron Swanson at a vegan socialist’s dinner party after having lost consecutive games for the first time this season.

Know Thy Enemy

About the Pacers’ D: What Indiana is doing on that side of the floor these days essentially doubles as a Master class in the effective elimination of the most efficient, desirable and coveted real estate opportunities on the offensive end of the court. To wit:

- The Pacers are No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area, allowing opposing teams to hit just 55.3 percent of their shots from that location.

- The Pacers are also tops in the NBA in terms of forcing its opponents to take the highest number of midrange shot attempts per game (28.3)

- Only Portland allows fewer made corner 3s per game than does Indiana. The Pacers, in fact, defend the entirety of the 3-point arc with vim and vigor, ranking in the league’s top-6 in opponent 3s attempted, 3s made and overall 3-point percentage.

- Per Synergy, Indiana’s half-court defense is tops in the league on a points per possession basis, its transition D is second, and the Pacers rank fourth in defending spot-ups and fifth in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers. In other words, Indiana excels at limiting everything Houston’s offense typically feasts upon. Stylistically, then, this is your basic Pawnee vs. Eagleton turf war.

The Pacers make life miserable for opponents with a whip-smart scheme that takes full advantage of their team-wide length that is the envy of the league. Few clubs can help-and-recover quite like the Pacers do, and Indiana’s defenders are perfectly happy to funnel opposing perimeter players into the paint as if they’re rolling out the red carpet to Entertainment 720, knowing full well that a face-to-face meeting with Roy Hibbert awaits all who enter. Opponents are barely hitting better than 42 percent of their shots at the rim when Hibbert is patrolling the paint, a number that ranks right near the top of the league.

So with the 3-point line guarded as if it holds Sweetums' deepest, darkest secrets while the hoop remains diligently defended as well, it should become quite clear why Indiana’s opponents are so frequently left with little choice but to fire away from midrange – an area of the floor Houston’s shooters typically avoid.

“I don’t really want to settle for those jump shots,” James Harden said Wednesday while being asked if his offensive approach has to change when going up against the Pacers. “As long as I’m being aggressive and getting to the rim, if Roy Hibbert steps up, I still have Dwight rolling to the rim – that’s the beauty of having Dwight Howard on my team.

“It’s just reading the defense, finding shooters, finding Dwight, knowing when to take layups and knowing when to pass the ball.”

- On the other end of the floor, meanwhile, Paul George has inserted himself into the early season MVP conversation by putting up offensive numbers that come awfully close to mirroring the devastating impact he delivers on the defensive end of the floor. The raw numbers – 23.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists per game and 40.6 percent 3-point shooting – are awesome. So, too, is his shot chart:

When perusing that work of art, two things in particular stand out: 1.) Corner 3s are basically layups for George these days (seriously, he’s hitting 61 percent from that locale while shooting 57 percent inside the restricted area.) 2.) George is taking a ton of midrange shots but he’s also making them as if his name were LaMarcus Aldridge (Aldridge has knocked down 44.6 percent of his midrange attempts this season; George has a hit rate of 44.4 percent). Please note: George doesn’t turn 24 until May. Little wonder, then, that Indiana’s budding superstar was rumored to be the muse behind Mouse Rat’s “The Awesome Album.”  

In the spotlight

All eyes ought to be on each team’s spectacularly productive starting units tonight. Simply put, these are two of the best high-usage lineups in the league. The Pacers’ starting five boasts a net rating of +13.1 in 432 minutes this season while producing an offensive rating of 105.2 and a defensive mark of 92.1. Houston’s current opening quintet has only been on the court together for 228 minutes, but in that time it’s been even better, generating a net rating of +17.9 while posting an absurd offensive rating of 115.3 and a defensive efficiency mark of 97.4.

So treat yo’ self tonight, folks. This is going to be fun.

Injury Update

Jeremy Lin (back) is being listed as a game-time decision, though based on his comments after yesterday’s practice, it would be a bit of a surprise if he plays. Omer Asik (knee) is out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.