On paper, at least.
The Pacers (playing the role of immovable object) have shook off both a sluggish start and a season-long absence of star forward Danny Granger, and now look poised for another strong playoff run.
Indiana has won 14 of its past 19 games. The league's stingiest defense (89.1 points per game allowed) has held opponents below 90 points in 13 games over that stretch.
Coach Frank Vogel's team has athleticism on the perimeter, size on the interior and strength all over the floor. It also added some valuable experience in the 2012 postseason, pushing the eventual champion Miami Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
As for the Rockets, they're the unstoppable force here.
Rather, they were just a few weeks ago.
After a torrid 10-2 stretch that saw the club pour in a remarkable 112.6 points per game, coach Kevin McHale's club suddenly feels frigid.
It's lost five consecutive games, managing a very pedestrian 95.8 points per game over that stretch.
Its backcourt tandem of Jeremy Lin and James Harden has the potential to unleash a flurry of points on any given night. But it's forced into heavy scoring loads given Lin's gambling approach on defense and Harden's limitations on that end of the floor.
Time: Friday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m. ET
TV: League Pass
Records: Houston Rockets (21-19), Indiana Pacers (24-16)
Betting Line: Pacers -5.5
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Danny Granger (knee), out
Jeremy Lin, PG, Rockets vs. George Hill, PG, Pacers
Linsanity may be over for the Harvard grad, but he's clearly growing more comfortable with his Houston teammates.
The gaudy scoring numbers aren't typically there, but like he showed against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season, he still packs an offensive punch.
But McHale would gladly trade Lin's points (12.3 per game) for better care of the basketball (3.0 turnovers per game). He's constantly probing opposing defenses, and McHale won't ask him to dial back that aggressiveness. But Lin needs to find a way to channel that energy within a more controlled attack.
He's a willing passer and has shown the ability to pass his teammates into scoring chances. When he and Harden find the balance between calling their own numbers and sharing the wealth, Houston's more than capable of competing with the game's elite.
Hill's more of a scorer than a traditional point guard, but he has a far better understanding of the value of each position than most scoring guards. Surely three seasons under the guidance of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been at least part of the reason that his basketball IQ extends well beyond his 26 years.
Lin can ill afford to sleep on Hill, who will punish any fruitless gambles with a reliable perimeter stroke (34.3 percent on the year) or productive movements without the basketball.
But he may need to bring a more effective offensive night if the Rockets control the pace of this game. His field-goal percentage has dipped to 42.4, his lowest such mark since his rookie season of 2008-09.
He's a pest defensively, and his relentless pressure could prove disastrous to the NBA's most turnover-prone team (Houston averages 16.5 per game). It may also be vital to Indiana's attempt to slow the tempo of this game.
James Harden, SG, Rockets
Harden's first season with the club has been an eye-opening one.
His 26.3 points per game ranks fourth in the NBA, and his 44.7 field-goal percentage hints toward his efficient approach to the offensive end.
When his long-range attempts are falling (33.8 percent on the season), he's as capable as any player in the league to score points in bunches. He isn't the type of player who produces too many surprising box scores; it's clearly apparent when his offensive game is rolling.
With Roy Hibbert, David West and Ian Mahinmi occupying Indiana's paint, Harden's penetration may be at its most effective when he beats his defender and locates open teammates. It's a role he's comfortable filling, thanks to his weighty offensive responsibilities during three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Paul George, SF, Pacers
The third-year wing has shined brightest in the absence of Granger.
He's moved back to his natural small forward position, and responded with the best season of his young career.
He leads the Pacers in scoring (16.9) and steals (1.7) and ranks second in assists (3.7) and player efficiency rating (16.9). His 7.8 rebounds per game are the third most on the roster.
In other words, he knows both how to fill a stat sheet and how to impact games on both ends of the floor.
Even if Indiana's able to slow down the game, it will still need some reliable offense to hold off the runs that Houston will put forth. George's offensive versatility leaves him as the likeliest source for those timely buckets.
He'll also be tasked with slowing the Rockets' second-best scorer to date, Chandler Parsons (14.5). Like many of his teammates, here's where George often leaves his biggest mark. He understands how to use his 6'8" frame and elite-level athleticism to pressure ball-handlers, clog passing lanes and erase shot attempts.
Indiana Pacers 93, Houston Rockets 89
Indiana's lack of scoring depth will keep this game competitive for all 48 minutes.
But with the Rockets offense trending in the wrong direction, the Pacers' ability to harass opposing shooters and finish defensive trips on the glass will have them bolstering their conference standings.
In order to win this game, Houston needs to do more than just dominate the backcourt. The Rockets will need their frontcourt to find quality looks—a daunting task given the Pacers' physical front line.
Houston has struggled away from home (7-12), while Bankers Life Fieldhouse has proven to be one of the toughest venues in the NBA (Indiana is 15-3 at home).
*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 1/17/2013.
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