Lock-down defense giving Pacers leeway when offense sputters
The Indiana Pacers are finding out that they don't need a big effort every night from Paul George - or, apparently, to take care of the basketball - in order to be successful.
The Houston Rockets are still looking for a fallback plan after James Harden.
They haven't needed one the last two times they've faced the Pacers, but now the Rockets will have to worry about George and an Indiana team that's playing fantastic defense to start the new year.
George has hit a rough patch over the past 10 games, averaging 19.3 points and shooting 35.5 percent after scoring 26.6 per game and shooting 43.4 percent in his first 26.
But unlike those first two months, the Pacers (21-15) have been able to survive George's off nights. They've won four times in the seven games he's scored 20 or fewer over the last 10, something they did four times over those first 26.
A lot of that can be attributed to lock-down defense. Indiana has allowed a league-best 94.3 points per 100 possessions since Christmas, and it's held its first four opponents of 2016 to 37.7 percent shooting after Friday's 91-86 win in New Orleans.
The Pacers have won the past two on this four-game trip despite 41 turnovers.
"Those road wins like that, when you turn the ball over 25 times and you're still able to win, those are good wins," said Ian Mahinmi, who had a season-high 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. "We played Pacers defense, and that's what kept us in the game."
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For some reason, taking care of the basketball on the road hasn't mattered to Indiana. It's 5-0 when committing 19 or more turnovers away from home and 0-7 when it has 14 or fewer.
Just don't try to make sense of that around Frank Vogel.
"We've got to play better than that. There's no question about it," Vogel said. "We're too sloppy."
The Rockets know a thing or two about struggling to hang on to the basketball. Their 16.6 turnovers per 100 possessions are the second most in the league, and the Pacers' 16.5 forced per 100 rank fifth.
Houston (18-19) ran into a team that wanted to slow things down twice earlier this week, sweeping a home-and-home against a Utah club that plays at the league's slowest pace. The Rockets still managed to impose some of their more up-tempo style, outscoring the Jazz 29-10 on the break in those contests.
"It's a style that we've played before," coach Bernie Bickerstaff said after Thursday's 103-94 home win. "We've been down before, we've grinded it out. Our guys don't mind the grind, they don't mind fighting."
Houston, seventh in pace, likely won't have to worry about slowing things down against an Indiana team that's eighth. But the Pacers will need to figure out a way to contain Harden.
Harden totaled 89 points in helping the Rockets sweep last season's series from the George-less Pacers, getting to the free-throw line a combined 37 times. That's exactly the same number of free throws Indiana shot.
"That's one of the biggest challenges in guarding a guy like that, is trying to do it without fouling," Vogel said at the time. "He's got all the tricks to pick up fouls."
When Harden's usage is up is still when the Rockets are the most successful. They're 11-0 when he attempts at least 23 field goals and 11-4 when he scores 30 points.
Houston point guard Ty Lawson remains out due to a three-game suspension for his July DUI arrest while Dwight Howard is expected back after resting Thursday.
Howard has averaged 22.3 points in his last four games.