The Indiana Pacers became the first team in the NBA to clinch a playoff spot Wednesday night, but a two-game losing streak has their place atop the Eastern Conference in doubt.
With their fourth straight playoff appearance secured, the Pacers try to avoid their first three-game skid of the season Friday night in Houston against a Rockets team that has dominated the East.
The Pacers (46-15) have lost consecutive games for just the second time this season after trailing wire-to-wire in a 109-87 rout at Charlotte on Wednesday.
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After a stretch of 13 wins in 15 games, Indiana is 13-8 since Jan. 22 and has allowed Miami into serious contention for the East’s top spot.
"Over the last 20 games or so, we just haven’t had our mojo," forward David West said. "We’ve got to change some things up because these last 20 games is going to be a battle."
The Pacers have allowed 97.9 points per game in the 21-game span after yielding 88.3 through a 33-7 start to the season. They’ve allowed their past two opponents to connect on 50.0 percent of their 3-point chances.
"Too much space," West said after Tuesday’s 98-96 home loss to Golden State. "We’ve got to be more combative. We’ve got to take guys’ personal space and impose our will."
Recent acquisition Evan Turner did that on the offensive end against the Bobcats. In his sixth game with Indiana, Turner scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting for his most productive night with the Pacers after going scoreless against the Warriors.
Indiana has lost three of its last five against the West while the Rockets (42-19) have beaten nine straight opponents from the East. They’re 19-3 overall when crossing over and 13-0 at home in such contests, including a 106-103 victory over Miami on Tuesday.
They followed that up with a 101-89 victory in Orlando on Wednesday after falling behind by 14 in the second quarter. The Rockets are in the midst of their own 13-2 stretch as they try to track down Oklahoma City and San Antonio at the top of the West.
James Harden scored a game-high 31 points and Dwight Howard had 19 points and 13 rebounds, while Terrence Jones continued his impressive stretch. Jones had his third straight double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds while going 8 of 10 from the floor, and is averaging 19.3 points and 11.0 boards this month.
"I was just reading the defenders," Jones told the team’s official website. "They were playing off, backing in to try to stop Dwight from getting the ball. I just wanted to be more aggressive so later on, he could get the ball."
One of the Rockets’ rare losses to the East came against the Pacers, a 114-81 defeat in Indiana on Dec. 20 for their fourth straight loss in the series.
"The game in Indiana, we didn’t play our brand of basketball," Howard said. "They were a lot better team than we were earlier in the season. We understand the game as a team a little bit better. I think it is going to be a different game and we are looking forward to that matchup."
Paul George had 24 points and nine rebounds as the Pacers shot 53.1 percent and held the Rockets to 38.1. Howard had 19 points and 12 rebounds, but Harden was held to 12 on 3 of 14 from the field.