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Scoring lulls doom short-handed Pacers in 111-102 loss to Rockets

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Indiana hung around with six players scoring in double figures, but injuries, prolonged scoring droughts, and too much James Harden were just ... well... too much.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Already down by Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb, and Edmond Sumner, the injury-riddled Pacers, who sustained yet another injury when Malcolm Brogdon exited the game and never returned with back soreness after playing just nine minutes, somehow led by as many as nine in a contest that saw 13 lead changes.

Unable to hold onto a 9-point lead with five minutes to go in the second quarter after surrendering a 16-2 run to close the half, Indiana clawed out of a 10-point, third-quarter hole to take a four-point lead in the fourth, but 14 unanswered points from Houston left them trailing the rest of the way. With history having cruelly repeated itself after halftime with another prolonged scoring drought, Indiana saw their four-game win streak snapped in spite of some inspired perseverance, narrowly losing 111-102 in only their second game of the season against an above .500 opponent.

Entering the night with the league’s fifth-easiest strength of schedule, James Harden’s 44 points, 17 of which came in the fourth quarter as his opponent’s offense sputtered, served as an ample reminder of how hard it is to win on the road against the west, where the Pacers went a measly 3-9 last season in games without Oladipo.

Hampered by foul trouble before eventually fouling out, T.J. Warren’s off-night and eventual absence only added to the fourth-quarter woes, as Indiana’s primary scorer finished out the final six minutes of the game from the bench after contributing just six points on 1-of-8 shooting.

As such, here’s some carefully crafted winners and losers from what turned out to be a closer than expected, yet still decidedly brutal, front-end of a back-to-back:

Loser: Injuries

In addition to committing 17 turnovers on the night as one of the best teams in the league in terms of ball control, the Pacers had several moments throughout both scoring lulls where they just flat-out looked out of sorts in the absence of Brogdon’s ability to drive out the competition and survey the landscape for secondary and tertiary reads.

With all due respect to T.J. McConnell for scoring or assisting on 16 of the team’s points amid a huge 18-5 push that spanned the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, things got dicey at times in both halves when Houston wised up enough to game-plan around some of the actions that had repeatedly burned them.

Here, for instance, with James Harden top-locking on the potential dribble hand-off, P.J. Tucker was already lying in wait in the paint for McDermott’s back-cut to the rim, which resulted in a deflection and eventually capped off the 16-2 run for Houston.

At the end of the half, and at the end of the game, that’s where you would prefer to play through your best scorer, which wasn’t possible with Oladipo in street clothes, Brogdon in the locker room, and Warren battling foul trouble.

Winner: The Double-Big Lineup

In his first game back with a concussion, Goga Bitadze was a team-high plus-19 in 18 minutes, in part, because of the success the team had with him playing beside Sabonis.

During the second-quarter, a lineup featuring both centers flanked by Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday/T.J. Warren, and Doug McDermott, outscored the Rockets 14-7 in a span of roughly four minutes, with the Georgian big man creating space by standing outside the three-point line on one end while cleaning up the glass and holding down the paint in tandem with Sabonis on the other. Keep an eye on this.

Winner/Loser: Staying (mostly) lucky on opponent 3s

After ranking 25th defensively (at 109.1 points per 100 possessions) through their first three games, the Pacers graded out at second (100.7) over their last eight prior to tonight. By the numbers, that means they’ve defended “better” without Myles Turner, one of last season’s strongest candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. That’s very, very strange (especially given how many different lineups they’ve been forced to cycle through as a result of injuries) and seems to suggest that something else (or, perhaps several somethings) is going on here.

For one, credit a roster with seven new faces for making some necessary tweaks (i.e. switching back-screen pick-and-rolls) and getting to know each other with time in the adaptable shot-blocker’s absence. During the first three games of the season, there were several moments that looked like...well... the first three games of the season.

Here, for instance, Malcolm Brogdon is attempting to push the ball handler away from the screen at the same time as Turner is jumping out above the level of the screen. That’s the equivalent of slapping on a “hello, my name is” sticker and introducing yourself to your third cousin for the first time at an extended family reunion.

Of course, there’s also something to be said for Sabonis no longer having to defend out on the perimeter and instead being in position to box-out. Despite having two centers in the starting lineup, the Pacers ranked 28th in opponent second-chance points per 100 possessions over their 0-3 start. Since then, and keeping in mind that Sabonis missed two games during this stretch, the Pacers have skyrocketed to sixth.

Figuring out how to maintain those numbers while still keeping Turner in range to benefit from his presence around the basket is a question they’re going to have to answer at some point, but not everything has been about addition by subtraction or even individual improvement (hi, T.J. Warren).

They’ve also gotten some help from the basketball gods — at least prior to tonight, that is. Over those eight games, their opponents shot a combined 35 percent on wide-open threes. For point of reference, only nine teams in the league have shot at or below that threshold with 6+ feet of space on the season. To be fair, at 30.6 percent, Washington hasn’t exactly been lighting it up this season, but they were downright dreadful against the Pacers (4-of-17), and the same can be said for Chicago (4-of-13) and Oklahoma City (2-of-10).

The good news is those are relatively low attempt rates, which is what defenses generally have more power over, but that doesn’t mean that divine intervention and a soft schedule haven’t played at least minor parts in their success at the end of the floor. Or, that it wasn’t fair to question what would happen against a team that launches those types of shots on fourth-ranked volume while knocking them down at an above-average clip.

Spoiler Alert: The tracking data won’t be out until tomorrow morning, but Houston players other than Harden, who feasted on more than his fair share of contested step-backs, shot 8-of-32 overall from three (yuck!), and there were several instances where having a certain shot-blocker who requires less help on pick-and-rolls and allows defenders to stay home on shooters would’ve definitely come in handy — make or miss.

The same could be said on this isolation lay-up from Harden, where it was evident that Sabonis just didn’t quite have the closing speed or the wingspan to recover to the shot. (Of course, one could also point out that it would’ve been better for him to make more liberal use of the 2-9 rule (referencing the 2.9 seconds that a player can legally stand in the lane) while letting his three teammates zone up the right side of the floor, but I digress.)

Winner: The T.J. Connection

T.J. Leaf was the recipient of four of T.J. McConnell seven assists, and three of those were dunks. Each of them was perfect, but this one where he slipped the subsequent pindown with Westbrook disconnecting on the switch inside the machinations of this nifty give-a-screen, get-a-screen floppy action for Holiday and McDermott was especially so.

Winner: Houston, we don’t have a math problem?

Without Oladipo, Turner, or Lamb available to space the floor, playing to the strengths of the players they have in uniform in the form of pull-up twos has made sense. No need to enter into a fire fight from three with the combined 11-of-40 shooting prowess of the T.J.s, right? Even so, the consequence of taking those types of open shots (which, on the surface, is a good thing) is that doing so comes at the cost of picking up easy points at the line when those shots don’t fall (not such a good thing).

Surprisingly, though, with Houston helping off of shooters and Sabonis and Warren both regularly attacking the basket, the Pacers launched over 30 threes (meeting their per game goal for the season) and only attempted three fewer free throws than the Rockets, who boast the league’s leader in free throw attempts per game.

Indiana still got outscored by 18 points from three, but on a night when they struggled to maintain possession, getting to the line more frequently helped them stay afloat. That’s progress!

Loser: Sabonis versus double-teams

Sabonis finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season, but he was uncharacteristically frazzled on several occasions versus switches as well as when drawing an extra defender. On top of throwing the ball away to open the game and traveling at the start of the second half, look at this possession from mid-way through the third quarter.

Not only was he slow to back down Harden after getting the switch off of the dribble hand-off for McDermott, he botched the pass with Austin Rivers zoning up the weak side when it appeared that Tucker was coming to double. Running more split-cut action, where the nearest player to post-feeder slips the screen, would’ve helped. Overall, however, the outing was a testament to his ability to still finish with strong numbers even when it seemed as though he didn’t quite play up to par, especially with Clint Capela sidelined for Houston.

Winner: Skip Passes Galore

As demonstrated, here, by Justin Holiday, the Pacers didn’t always finish off their slew of skip passes with a make, but boy, oh boy, was it obvious that maintaining spacing while hunting for them was A-number-one on the scouting report, as well it should’ve been with the way Houston’s small-ball lineups were defending Sabonis in the post.

Granted, as explained above, Sabonis didn’t always make the right read on these possessions when he had the ball, but he nevertheless opened up these types of shots with his gravity, be it just by standing there or rolling down the lane.

Loser: In-game Rest

Since moral victories don’t count in the win column, in some respects, it almost would’ve been better for the Pacers if they hadn’t of stayed within striking distance for so long. Having pulled ahead by four with 9:32 to play in the game, Sabonis logged over 35 minutes of action with a game versus the 8-3 Milwaukee Bucks looming back home at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tomorrow night that may or may not include Myles Turner.

Of course, the good news on that front is that the Pacers didn’t show many signs of fatigue in their commanding win over the Wizards earlier this season, which was the night after they lost in overtime to the Hornets. Having said that, there was more than one occasion where Sabonis looked gassed in the second half, like when Austin Rivers blew in from the 3-point line to grab his own rebound.

Considering the Pacers may not be able to count on getting a boost from Brogdon in general, let alone any extra juice from him playing his old team, that’s a bummer.