Rockets, Harden slowed by Pacers’ defense

HOUSTON — Los Angeles is a city of 469 square miles and 3.7 million people, so it is a little unclear exactly how merely being from there helped Paul George defend James Harden, but that was George’s explanation nonetheless.

“Him being an LA cat, me being an LA cat,” George said. “I know his game.”

Wednesday night was a non-ideal night to question that explanation because Harden went 6-for-24 from the field against George’s defense, and George went 4-for-17 on a night the Pacers (45-27) beat the Rockets (39-32) 100-91 at Toyota Center.

Game recognizes game, and LA shuts down LA.

That being the case, Wednesday’s game between the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers would have to be decided by others. Some nights that would have been somebody like Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin for Houston, but on Wednesday it was Roy Hibbert for Indiana. Hibbert scored 28 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked three shots, which apparently was enough of a bark to scare any potential Rockets intruders away from the lane.

“I told the guys if they get beat, don’t foul them,” Hibbert said. “Let me take care of them at the rim.”

Easy enough. Houston shot 38.6 percent, and when Houston shoots 38.6 percent, Houston does not win. It’s just about that simple.

“I thought our defensive execution was off-the-charts good,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Even when they were scoring, it was them scoring on the right coverage. We know that if we execute the right coverage, they’re going to score at a very low rate. Our defense was maybe the best it’s been all year.”

In the other locker room, the Rockets summarized a mostly woeful night by saying they just didn’t seem to have the energy for whatever reason.

“We didn’t get out, we weren’t running,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We wanted to try to play it before Hibbert got down. We wanted to try to play with more pace but we just didn’t do it.”

Indiana’s season-best defense and Houston’s lethargy swirled into an awfully strong cocktail. The Pacers led by 19 in the first quarter. Ordinarily, this would have been about the moment when Harden stepped behind a few screens, hit a few 3s and started his relentless march to the free-throw line. But Harden missed seven of his 10 3-pointers, and nobody else on the team made more than one.

Houston did make a run (in compliance with the NBA’s unwritten rule book), closing the gap to five on a Harden and-one play with nine minutes left in the game, the Pacers started pounding the Rockets in the paint with Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough (16 points, eight rebounds). After a Harden’s play, Indiana scored six unanswered points, all in the paint, to stretch the lead back to 11 with six minutes to play. Half a quarter had gone by, and the Rockets had gotten nowhere.

“We let them bully us,” Lin said. “Get whatever shot that they wanted and they just scored at will.”

It was a huge performance for Hibbert statistically, but it was also huge contextually. Just a few days before, Rockets center Omer Asik had effectively guarded the Spurs’ Tim Duncan straight-up in a Houston win, and that was the Rockets’ strategy against Hibbert on Wednesday. The Pacers were playing without second-leading scorer David West, so this should not have been that big of a problem.

But Hibbert, who averages 11 points per game, made them pay in a way Duncan could not.

“He’s a real good defensive player, and he’s not going to have (many) nights like this,” Hibbert said. “The basketball gods are pretty happy with me tonight, I guess.”