INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers and Nets each finished with 49 victories last season. Both made flashy offseason roster additions that were meant to get them over the top in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, approaching the midway point of the season, these expected contenders are going in opposite directions.
Indiana forward Paul George scored 24 points and played strong defense on Brooklyn guard Joe Johnson to lead the Pacers to a 105-91 victory over the Nets on Saturday night.
Red-hot guard Lance Stephenson had 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for the Pacers, who won their fourth in a row and improved their East-leading record to 24-5.
One reason for that success is a lack of injuries. Members of Indiana's starting lineup have combined to miss just three games.
The Nets (10-20), on the other hand, have dealt with constant absences. Playing without star center Brook Lopez and key frontcourt reserves Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche on Saturday, the Nets simply didn't have enough and dropped to 0-3 against Indiana.
Members of Brooklyn's projected starting unit have missed 33 games.
"It's tough," Indiana forward David West said. "Nobody's going to feel too sorry for anybody who's too banged up. I've been on a team that's dealt with injuries. You just have to play the schedule regardless of (whether) lineups are different."
Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams, who recently referred to the season as a "nightmare," acknowledged medical problems have damaged the club's on-court chemistry.
"It's definitely hurt us," Williams said. "We can play with these teams. It's just like we have a bad quarter and can't recover."
That was the issue Saturday, as the Nets fell apart in the third period and were outscored 28-20. The Pacers, who came in outscoring opponents by an average of 5.9 points in the third, stayed true to form and seized a firm grip on what had been a high-scoring game. They took an 86-76 lead entering the fourth quarter and were never seriously challenged after that.
The Nets' lack of continuity showed up with continual breakdowns from a porous defense. Indiana matched a season best by shooting 53.5 percent from the field and placed all five starters in double figures for the sixth time this season.
Point guard George Hill scored 21 points and West had 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Stephenson, who torched Brooklyn for a career-high 26 points on Monday, again used his athleticism to create opportunities for himself and others. Coaches and teammates are pushing Stephenson as an All-Star candidate.
"I am beginning to feel very confident in what I'm doing and how I'm doing it," Stephenson said. "I'm out there having fun."
The Nets weren't, but they didn't quit after a week of questions about their ability to give full effort in the face of so much adversity. Forwards Paul Pierce and Mirza Teletovic scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, and Williams had 14 points and six assists.
The Nets shot 46.8 percent but were outrebounded 41-28.
"We played hard," Williams said. "Third quarter, things went south and we lost our confidence. That's been a problem for us. Everything's a work in progress. We're going to stay positive and hope things turn around."
The Nets scored on their first five possessions of the second quarter, causing Indiana coach Frank Vogel to call timeout with 8:55 remaining as Brooklyn took a 38-35 lead. Things got worse out of the stoppage when Pierce stole a pass and dribbled for an open-court dunk that gave the Nets a 43-37 advantage.
"Defense is the name of the game," Hill said. "We came out way too slow. We knew we had to pick it up and get moving again."
Indiana exploded for 17 points in the final 5 1/2 minutes of the half to carry a 58-56 lead into intermission. Stephenson had 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds by halftime.
Johnson, matched by George in man-to-man all night, had just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting. His backup, Alan Anderson, scored 10 points off the bench for Brooklyn.
"I need everyone to be better offensively and defensively," Nets coach Jason Kidd said. "It's got to be the whole team on a nightly basis. Right now, we're not getting that."
NOTES: Saturday's game began a nine-game stretch in which the Nets will face seven teams with winning records. ... Brooklyn announced that C Brook Lopez will have surgery on Jan. 4 to repair the fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot. The team did not reveal a timetable for his recovery. ... The sellout crowd was the ninth at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Last season, the Pacers had just 10 home sellouts in the regular season. ... Pacers F/G Paul George's 3-pointer with 2:56 left in the first half tied him with Austin Croshere (376 3s made) for seventh place on the franchise's career list.