HOUSTON -- Two nights after proving their mettle with a shorthanded win over the Atlanta Hawks, the Indiana Pacers led the Houston Rockets wire to wire for a 100-91 victory on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
Missing starting forwards Danny Granger (left knee) and David West (lower back), the Pacers (45-27) relied on balanced scoring and their usual brand of suffocating defense to sweep their season series with the Rockets (39-32), who closed a season-long seven-game homestand at 5-2.
Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, subbing for West, ran roughshod in the paint, combining for 44 points and 21 rebounds. Pacers guard Lance Stephenson returned from a one-game absence cause by a bothersome right hip and scored 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Swingman Paul George was held without a field goal in the first half but tallied 11 of his 16 points in the third quarter to help stifle several Rockets rallies.
Houston closed to within 84-79 on James Harden's three-point play with 9:05 remaining, but the Rockets' uphill climb proved too daunting. Harden finished with 22 points but missed 18 of his 24 shot attempts. Greg Smith paired a career-high 19 rebounds with 18 points off the bench.
The Pacers punished the Rockets inside early, with Hibbert and Hansbrough thoroughly controlling their head-to-head matchups with Houston center Omer Asik and power forward Donatas Motiejunas.
It wasn't a surprise that Hansbrough got the best of Motiejunas; the Rockets' rookie is a stretch four who has yet to fill out enough to muscle stronger veterans on the block. However, Asik had essentially played Spurs forward Tim Duncan to a standstill Sunday, so when Hibbert opened the game scoring at will on the block, Houston scuffled.
With Hibbert and Hansbrough combining for a whopping 25 points and 13 rebounds in the first quarter, the Pacers raced to a 35-19 lead entering the second period. Indiana posted 22 points in the paint in the first quarter, and its interior play was so dominant that Rockets coach Kevin McHale turned to reserve big men Smith and Thomas Robinson seeking toughness.
Both delivered, sparking the Rockets' second-quarter run with determined efforts on the offensive glass. By intermission, the Rockets had totaled 13 second-chance points on eight offensive rebounds, with Smith and Robinson combining for all eight of those boards. By the break, Smith and Robinson had 23 points and 14 rebounds, and the Rockets, once down 17, trailed 58-49.
NOTES: While the Pacers, third in the Eastern Conference, are all but certain to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, pursuing their first division title since the 2003-04 season remains a paramount goal. "We're interested in earning the second seed," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "We're interested in winning the Central Division, so we have great urgency with every game. We want guys healthy going into the playoffs, but we still have great urgency to win every game." ... Central to the Pacers' pursuit of a division title is the ascent of swingman George, a first-time All-Star averaging 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and four assists. George leads the NBA in defensive win shares, with 5.9. "He's really improved a great deal," McHale said of George, 22. "His shot is better, his feel is better. He was always a good athlete, and I thought his niche in the league might be defense, kind of just scrappy. But he's become a heck of an offensive player."