INDIANAPOLIS -- James Harden found all the cracks in Indiana's defense Monday night.
The three-time All-Star scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter, including 12 during a decisive 4-minute flurry that helped the Houston Rockets pull away for a 110-100 victory over the Pacers, who have lost six in a row.
"He was just solid. He's a hell of a player," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We don't have our record if James isn't playing at an MVP level, which he's doing. I say it every year, two or three guys play at extraordinary levels, and he's one of them right now."
Even against one of the NBA's staunchest defenses.
While some teams cringe at the sight of facing the Pacers, Harden seems to have embraced it.
He scored 45 points in the season's first matchup and nearly did it again Monday when he was 10 of 21 from the field and 21 of 22 from the free throw line with seven assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Houston (47-23) has won four of five.
How good was Harden on a night when the Rockets were short-handed?
He matched the Pacers point-for-point in the first quarter, 15-15, and put them away by hitting 3-pointers, driving to the basket and drawing fouls in a nearly perfect fourth.
"It's just a matter of me being crafty, getting there, making plays and just doing what I do every single night," said Harden, who leads the league with eight 40-point games this season. "As long as I'm aggressive and in attack mode, good things are going to happen."
The Pacers (30-40) didn't have an answer on a tough shooting night.
C.J. Watson scored 23 points and George Hill finished with 20, but Indiana's fading playoff hopes took another hit. The Pacers haven't won since March 12, dropping them from sixth place in the East to 10th -- two spots out of the playoffs. They are barely ahead of 11th-place Brooklyn.
Harden's 21 free throws were the most ever made by a Pacers opponent, and they came two nights after Indiana allowed a franchise-record shooting percentage on its home court to Brooklyn.
"That's one of the biggest challenges in guarding a guy like that, is trying to do it without fouling," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He's got all the tricks to pick up fouls, and we've got young defenders on him and we didn't do a good job there."
Harden took full advantage as Houston jumped to a 26-15 lead after one and extended the lead to 53-39 at halftime.
The only real chance the Pacers had was in the third quarter when the Rockets lost their composure. Indiana finally cut the deficit to single digits after Joey Dorsey was called for a technical, then used a 7-0 spurt to close the deficit to 68-66 in the final 2 minutes of the third.
But Houston closed the quarter on an 8-2 run to make it 76-68, rebuilt a double-digit margin early in the fourth and relied on Harden to deliver the knockout punch late.
"We just kind of fought it out," McHale said. "Were able to go out there and get a win that we needed."
Rockets: Houston made 13 3-pointers, the 51st time this season the Rockets have had 10 or more in one game. That ties the NBA record set by the New York Knicks in 2012-13. It also gives the Rockets 804 3s this season as they chase the Knicks' single-season mark of 840, also set in 2012-13.
Pacers: It's been a rugged season for Indiana. The team has already had four losing streaks of five or more games for the first time since 1988-89, and now the Pacers have given up 233 points in their last two games, both at home.
Vogel told reporters before the game that two-time All-Star Paul George has not yet been cleared to play by Indiana's medical team. But the team remains hopeful he will return sometime before the end of the season. How late would be too late? "We certainly wouldn't want to bring him back for his first action in the playoffs," Vogel said. "So it would have to be before that."
Harden wasn't the only one who was making free throws. Houston wound up 35 of 37 from the line and was 13 of 24 (54.2 percent) on 3-pointers.
Rockets: Visit New Orleans on Wednesday.
Pacers: Visit Washington on Wednesday.
- Bill Kennedy
- Kevin Cutler
- Nick Buchert