August 12: Indiana Pacers 108, Houston Rockets 104
On a pretty boring day for basketball – alternately, a pretty average one for the last few pre-playoff days – this was the most interesting game with the most at stake. The Pacers could’ve finished anywhere from the 4 to the 6 seed in the East; the Rockets, meanwhile, could go anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in the West. Despite that, we still couldn’t get a full-strength game out of both of these teams. Indiana sat Malcolm Brogdon and First-Team All-Bubble T.J. Warren; Houston sat Russell Westbrook. It was close to full-strength, but also not.
And yet: it was still fairly entertaining. Houston started out on fire, jumped to a 23-9 lead, and promptly never hit another three again. Indiana led by as many as 14 in the fourth quarter before a late, dangerous Rockets comeback nearly forced an overtime the undermanned Pacers probably did not want. So: Indiana won, locked up a 4/5 matchup with Miami, gets to avoid Boston (though will not avoid Milwaukee in the second round), and did it all while giving two of their three best players the day off. Nice!
Houston’s loss will be a bit tougher to rationalize, especially because they got a fantastic performance from James Harden. As much as Harden gets blamed for a variety of Houston’s problems, this one couldn’t be pushed on him:
Harden was an absolute force everywhere on the court, scoring 45 points on 21 shots. He also posted 17 rebounds (16 of them defensive!), nine assists, and three steals. Harden was the one and only reason Houston came anywhere close to a win in a game where they were otherwise dominated. As seen above, he had a great game from three (7-for-14) and couldn’t be stopped from two, either (6-for-7).
When Harden has games like this, it’s hard to see why the Rockets could lose. My only complaint, if I had one, would be that he didn’t shoot enough or use enough possessions…and then I looked to see he had a 38% Usage Rate, nearly enough for two players in one.
Unfortunately, Harden is but one player. With Westbrook, the Rockets may have won this game, but it wouldn’t have fixed what was a total, complete failure by the rest of the roster offensively. Indiana was held under a point per possession and didn’t get a ton of great looks, so it wasn’t a defensive issue. Aside from Robert Covington being somewhat of an exception, the Rockets looked pretty dreadful. All non-Harden Pocket Rockets went 9-for-41 from three:
They picked up just six offensive rebounds to Indiana’s 12 and Myles Turner’s seven. (More on that later). They had six more turnovers, and Eric Gordon in particular had a brutal first outing back:
It wasn’t just Gordon, though he did go 1-for-9 from three. Houston, as a whole, missed an insane amount of uncontested looks. NBA’s Player Tracking metrics aren’t perfect, but they provide a useful starting point for data collection. Per their data, Houston took 61 uncontested/open/wide-open attempts in this game. They made just 22 of them:
And it certainly wasn’t because of Harden, who made eight of his 13. So: the non-Harden Rockets went 14-for-48 on open shots. (If you’re curious, no, 2020 Russell Westbrook probably wouldn’t improve that.) Houston’s greatest foe, as has been the case for a while now, continues to be themselves.
On Indiana’s side of things, it’s hard to take a ton from this one, simply because they didn’t play their full lineup. That said, they had five different double-digit scorers, all of whom got there by different means. For instance, Victor Oladipo did get to 16 points…on the back of a 7-for-26 shooting performance.
On the other hand, Doug McDermott continues to prove his status as Indiana’s most important bench piece. Who knows why he chose today to have his best game in the bubble, but he also scored 16 points…on 6-for-7 shooting and a perfect 3-for-3 outing from downtown.
The real winner in this one is Myles Turner, a player that didn’t have a great season but had a great game when it counted. His prowess on the offensive boards in this one likely pushed Indiana over the top to the win:
Turner had seven offensive rebounds, or one more than every Houston Rocket had combined. It’s very funny to see this, because if you’ve watched Myles Turner play, offensive rebounding is far from his strong suit. Among centers, his OREB% hovering around 5% ranked in the tenth percentile this season and in the 13th percentile last year, per dunksandthrees.com. Part of this is due to sharing a court with Domantas Sabonis, Indiana’s All-Star forward that is simply a better player, but it’s a weakness that dates back to his days with Rick Barnes at Texas. Turner’s never been very good at rebounding, and had Sabonis been available, taller teams may have simply played him off the floor at times.
The good news for Turner, of course, is that there is no Sabonis. It is all Myles, all the time, and games like this show that he’s capable of overcoming long-held issues that have slowed his development:
He’s a player that’s hard to not root for.
Lastly, as we’ve mentioned, Harden dropped 45 points, but the rest of the Rockets put up just 59 points on 65 shots. They missed a lot of open shots, to be sure, but Houston was made a bit more skittish in this one than usual because of the Pacers’ active hands on defense. The rebounds are one thing, but forcing 20 turnovers is another.
This all combined to lead to one of Houston’s worst shot volume games of the entire season. Indiana shot a little bit worse than Houston and made seven fewer free throws, but they got roughly 11 more shot equivalents than the Rockets did in a four-point game. The fact the Pacers are able to consistently play hard and do the little things that lead to wins make me wonder if I’ve personally underrated their postseason chances a bit. I can’t really foresee this team escaping their second-round date with Milwaukee, and that’s if they get through a likely coin-flip series against Miami. But: any team that plays this hard this often is worth your attention and time.