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Preview: Rockets vs. Pacers

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Indiana Pacers

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Indiana Pacers:

The Basics:

Indiana Pacers (46-15) at Houston Rockets (42-19)

Point Differential:

Indiana: +7.2 (NBA rank: T-1st)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Indiana: 102.5 (T-20th)

Houston: 108.0 (T-5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Indiana: 94.9 (1st)

Houston: 102.2 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Indiana: 95.98 (18th)

Houston: 98.31 (6th)

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: 49.5% (15th)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

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

Indiana: 15.7 (T-23rd)

Houston: 16.8 (30th)

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

Indiana: 52.5% (T-2nd); offensive rebound rate: 25.2% (T-18th); defensive rebound rate: 77.2% (T-1st)

Houston: 52.2% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.8% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 73.4% (22nd)

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: .290 (14th)

Houston: .390 (1st)

Given that the ‘Parks and Rec’ themed preview I published for the previous Rockets-Pacers tilt directly led to a 33-point drubbing (yes, I said “directly” – my jinxing skills are just that powerful, dontcha know), we’ll steer clear of any such shenanigans this time around and play it straight the rest of the way in an effort to reverse the fortunes that have conspired against the Rockets in this matchup the last couple of years.

Besides, setting the scene for this one requires no references to the understated genius of Ron Swanson, nor any nods to the beguiling charm of Li’l Sebastian. Simply put, tonight’s nationally televised contest pits the club with the best record in the NBA against the team boasting the league’s best mark since the start of the new calendar year. If that’s not enough to get you geeked up for this showdown, it seems reasonably safe to say literally nothing will.

It’s no secret that the Pacers have had Houston’s number of late; their physical, punishing and suffocating style of play on the defensive end has proven to be one of the few known antivenins against the Rockets’ otherwise lethal pick-your-poison attack. Indiana comes to town owning a four-game winning streak in this matchup, but hey, Houston has been in a streak-busting mood for much of the season, so why stop now? The Rockets most recently ended their four-year drought against Miami, put a halt to the horror of playing in Dallas, and earlier this campaign finally broke through and earned a season-series win over the Spurs for the first time since Tim Duncan entered the league.

This is a different, more confident and significantly healthier Houston team than the one the Pacers trounced back in December. Indiana, meanwhile, has lost a bit of its mojo and enters this contest trying to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season. Now the Pacers find themselves a little beat up and battered, too. George Hill’s shoulder is sore. Paul George’s back has been aching. Roy Hibbert’s production has plummeted. Yes, the Pacers still pose a daunting challenge and will no doubt come out highly motivated and fully focused tonight. But the timing has never been better for the Rockets to finally get over the hump against this particularly problematic adversary and put another notch in their increasingly decorated belt. And wouldn’t a long awaited, much anticipated win tonight taste just like something straight from the Sweetums factory? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist – if everything goes horribly, horribly wrong tonight, just blame me.)

Know Thy Enemy

- A refresher course on the Pacers’ asphyxiating and historically great season on the defensive end: Indiana owns the NBA’s best defense in both the half-court and in transition according to Synergy Sports. The Pacers are No. 1 by a mile in terms of opponent field goal percentage against and rank fourth overall in opponent field goal percentage from beyond the arc.

They’ve accomplished those feats thanks in no small part to their enviable length, skill and tenacity on that end of the floor, but also by becoming the living, breathing embodiment of an analytic’s dream come true. To wit: Indiana forces its opponents into more midrange shot attempts per game than does any other team in the league, and they are top-five in terms of limiting corner 3s. The Pacers also allow the third-fewest shot attempts from inside the restricted area and they’re No. 1 in the NBA in terms of opponent field goal percentage allowed from that location (related: opponents are hitting less than 42 percent of their shots near the rim when Roy Hibbert is defending the basket).

Last but certainly not least, Indiana ranks in the league’s top-3 in each of the following categories: fewest pace-adjusted second chance points, fast break points and paint points allowed per game; in the latter category, by the way, the Pacers are No. 1 overall. Yeah, these guys are good.

All that having been said, of late Indiana’s D has been merely outstanding rather than out of this world. Since the start of February, the Pacers’ defensive rating is 97.7 – still plenty good enough to be a league-leading mark, but not quite up to the smothering standard they had set over the season’s first few months.

- Speaking of coming back down to earth, after averaging around 13 points and 8 rebounds per game during the first two months of the season, Hibbert has been posting numbers closer to 9 and 6 in those respective categories since February. George, too, has seen his production tail off from where it was when these two teams last met; his hit rate from midrange has predictability dipped and since 2014 began he’s knocked down fewer than 40 percent of his shots overall and just 34 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

- Tonight’s contest pits the best first half club in the NBA against the league’s preeminent second half squad. The Rockets are No. 1 in net rating (+9.3) in the first half of games, while Indiana is first overall (+13.6) in the second half. In particular, keep a close eye on the first and third quarters: Houston owns a league-leading net rating of +11.8 in the opening stanza, while the Pacers have been straight up crushing opponents in the third while compiling an otherworldly net rating of +18.5.

- Also on display this evening: two of the best starting lineups in the NBA. Indiana boasts the second-best high-usage quintet in the league (only Golden State’s starting five has been better), with the fivesome of Hill, Lance Stephenson, George, David West and Hibbert outscoring its opposition to the tune of 12.8 points per 100 possessions while having shared the floor for more than 1,000 minutes this season. Of course, the Rockets’ opening lineup hasn’t been too shabby, either; they own a rather robust net rating of +9.9 in 472 minutes of shared playing time.

In the spotlight

Plenty of attention figures to rightfully be paid to the pair of All-Star tandems each club trots onto the court tonight. While Dwight Howard has historically gotten the better of his individual matchup with Roy Hibbert over the years, James Harden has had difficulty reaching his regular level of play when pitted against Paul George. In his three games versus the Pacers since coming to Houston, Harden is averaging just 17 points per game on less than 25 percent shooting from the field while turning it over four times per contest. But Harden was nowhere near 100 percent health-wise during the Rockets’ December drubbing in Indiana, and he’s been playing his best basketball of the season for more than a month now. A big showing from him tonight would obviously go a long way toward helping Houston put their problem with the Pacers to bed.

And since it’s such a big game, here’s one other thing to watch: When these two teams last met, the Pacers began the game by attacking Terrence Jones with a steady diet of David West’s unique brand of bully-ball. Jones, of course, has continued to improve since then, and he’s currently riding a streak of three consecutive double-doubles for the first time in his young career. But if Indiana experiences similar success with such a tactic, the Rockets will have an option at their disposal that they lacked last time: with Omer Asik back to full health, the Rockets can always counter with a supersized lineup of their own. Pairing Asik and Howard together isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy of course, but against physical frontlines like the ones possessed by the Pacers and Grizzlies, it could eventually come in handy.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) is out.

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