Slumping Pacers in need of change

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HOUSTON -- It started with Paul George and David West, two of the Indiana Pacers' veteran leaders, crowding inside the small visiting coach's locker room.

With their ankles still taped and their uniforms still on, there was an impromptu meeting taking place with hushed tones and grim faces. Sitting with his shoulder in ice at his locker, George Hill noticed and went over and slipped into the room. Then Roy Hibbert got up from his seat and stuck his head in.

Ten minutes passed, then 15. The team with the NBA's best record is in its first legitimate funk of the year and it's shaking the players up.

The Houston Rockets, the team that has been the league's best since Jan. 1, ripped the Pacers 112-86 on Friday night. It was the Rockets' second slaying of an Eastern Conference juggernaut at home this week after their three-point win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.

"We haven't talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile," Hibbert said. "We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed."

Three of the league's top teams -- the Pacers, Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder -- have found themselves in mini-slumps over the last week or so. None of it requires serious alarm but it is causing consternation as the rest of the contenders, namely the streaking Rockets, are closing the gap as the season heads into its final quarter.

For the Pacers, they couldn't have been thinking less about their rivals from Miami this night. They were squarely focused on each other and the slippage they've been experiencing in their trademark defense. Offensively the Pacers have not been great lately, either, but when the defense starts going that is when the problems begin.

There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.

"Every team we play is playing above themselves," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it's a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we're going to have to rise to the challenge."

The Rockets, who had their worst loss of the season when the Pacers crushed them by 33 points in Indianapolis earlier this season, certainly came into the game with that mindset.

James Harden had been terrible in his career against the Pacers and was shooting just 25 percent over the last four years against them. Since joining the Rockets, he was averaging just 17 points with some miserable shooting numbers in his head-to-head matchups with fellow All-Star George.

But this night Harden played with extreme emotion and aggression on his way to 28 points in just three quarters which included a series of 3-pointers and a vicious transition dunk. George, who had just two points when the Pacers were blown out in Charlotte on Wednesday, finished with 13 points and was generally a non-factor.

In the second half as the game got out of hand, Dwight Howard bounced around the court yelling "34! 34!" It was a reference to what he wanted the Rockets to win by, to displace the 33-point drubbing the Pacers handed them earlier. Houston didn't quite get there, pushing the lead to as much as 32, but it still ended up as the Pacers' worst loss of the year.

"That's all we talked about, every timeout and ever possession," said Howard, who had 15 points and seven rebounds. "We wanted to get payback."

Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.

They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.

"We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be," George said. "When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night."

As with everything in the league, check back in a week. The Rockets were walking on air after their two wins over the East powers this week to extend their hot streak. Their tests will continue as they begin the toughest schedule stretch of their season. They host the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday and then have road games in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami to test just where they are.

After closing their road trip Sunday with a challenging game in Dallas, the Pacers have five consecutive games against teams with losing records as they get a chance to regain their rhythm.

"Every team I've ever been a part of has had a stretch like we're in right now," Vogel said. "Since I've been here, we've always worked our way out of it. And we will. It stinks right now, but we've got a good team and we'll regroup."

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