INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers are coming off one of their best defensive performances of the season.
“I thought we worked harder to keep the ball in front of us (against Chicago),” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said at Saturday’s practice. “We didn’t have as many breakdowns as we did in the games prior to that. We improved our angles as far as close-outs. It comes down to taking pride in keeping that ball in front of you.”
Now Indiana faces a huge defensive challenge from the Houston Rockets and high-scoring James Harden on Sunday. Harden is averaging 37.8 points over the last five games to push his season average to 29.9. Harden scored 38 points as the Rockets improved to 10-3 with Saturday night’s victory over visiting Memphis.
Harden said he is likely playing the best he has in his career.
“There are people around me that push me and motivate me,” Harden said.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Harden is doing what a superstar is expected to do.
“We rely on him and we always rely on him,” D’Antoni said. “In a week or so, we’ll get Chris Paul back and it will take a lot off him. His minutes and load and what we expect of him will decrease some. But when you are a superstar, you have to carry the team sometimes.”
Paul has been sidelined with a knee injury since the season opener. Eric Gordon is averaging 22.8 points for the Rockets.
The Pacers (6-7) snapped a four-game losing streak by beating Chicago 105-87 Friday night.
“This was huge, man,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said. “Just to kind of get our mojo back a little bit. That was a great win for us, great road win for us. We still need to continue to lean on each other. This is the first time we had everybody healthy. That’s big, too. We just got to maintain that throughout the season.”
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Indiana forward Domantas Sabonis, who is averaging 13.0 points and 10.2 rebounds, returned after missing two games with a bruised calf.
Oladipo, who is averaging a team-high 23 points, led the way with 25 points, six rebounds and six assists against the Bulls.
The Pacers had blown second-half leads during the losing streak.
“What we’ve been trying to do the last couple of games is put together a full 48-minute game,” McMillan said. “We’ve been getting off to good starts, we just haven’t finished. I thought we came out third quarter and tried to establish ourselves defensively again, and not give up anything easy.”
Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said there is a lot of room for improvement.
“I think we’re leading the league in paint points and giving up 3-point attempts,” Young said. “We’ve got to focus more on closing off the paint. We’re not making teams take the points we want them to take. When we get to the point where we start doing that, we are going to win a lot more games.”