HOUSTON - Toughness has become the Indiana Pacers' calling card. Given another opportunity to confirm that reputation, the Pacers delivered.
Missing starting forwards Danny Granger (left knee) and David West (back), the Pacers relied on balanced scoring and their usual brand of suffocating defense to sweep their season series with the Houston Rockets, claiming a 100-91 win on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
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 caused by a right hip strain 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 stifle several Rockets (39-32) rallies.
"The No. 1 defense in the league against the No. 1 offense in the league -- we got the better of them," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Our defense was sensational, led by Paul George's matchup on (Rockets guard James) Harden. I thought he did a really strong job and our team did a strong job on him. And Roy Hibbert's rim protection was off the charts."
Hibbert was credited with three blocked shots but altered several more. The Pacers (45-27) limited the Rockets to just 38.6 percent shooting.
Houston closed to within 84-79 on 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.
"As the energy is flowing and you're running down the court and you get stops and you get down four, you feel like you have a chance to get more stops and take the lead," Smith said. "And then they bounce back with a 3 or a foul. We punched them in the mouth and they would punch back."
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 power forward Tim Duncan to a standstill Sunday, so when Hibbert opened the game scoring at will on the block, Houston scuffled.
Indiana needed Hibbert to set an offensive tone with West, their second-leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, sidelined. The Pacers improved to 6-1 without West as Hibbert produced a season-high 28 points.
"I just wanted to go play aggressive," Hibbert said. "He (Asik) is a talented player. Tonight was just a little off for him.
"I respect his game; he's a real good defensive player and I know he's not going to have nights like this (often). The basketball gods were pretty happy with me tonight."
With Hibbert and Hansbrough combining for a whopping 25 points and 11 rebounds in the first quarter, the Pacers raced to a 35-19 lead entering the second. Indiana registered 22 points in the paint in the first, its interior play so dominant that Rockets coach Kevin McHale turned to reserve bigs 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.
But that rally, like those that followed in the second half, was in vain.
"They came out, jammed inside and got a lead on us," McHale said. "We bottled up our offense. We never really got our offense going at all. We never really got any break going. We didn't have any rhythm to our offense whatsoever, and the big thing was when we did kind of get in the paint, they challenged our shots and we bobbled some passes."
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," 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." ... Key to the Pacers' pursuit of a division title is the ascent of 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."