INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers responded to Friday night's challenge like a champion.
After taking two big hits this week -- losing at home and dropping back-to-back games for the first time all season -- Indiana struck back by playing its most complete game of the year. Paul George finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, Lance Stephenson added 16 points and six assists, and the defence completely shut down Houston in a 114-81 rout.
"This team doesn't like losing," coach Frank Vogel said. "We talked about playing mad for four quarters."
By following Vogel's plan, the Pacers continued to add to an already strong resume.
While some try to discount Indiana's quick start because they're playing in the struggling Eastern Conference, the Pacers still have a firm grip on the conference's best record (21-5) and have already beaten three of the Western Conference's top teams -- the Clippers, Spurs and now the Rockets.
The way Indiana has been winning is just as impressive.
Despite taking Dwight Howard's best shot Friday -- Houston's centre had 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks -- Indiana still managed to manhandle the usually potent Rockets' offence. Houston (17-10) entered the game second in scoring average and third in field goal percentage. It left Indianapolis having shot 38.1 per cent in the game, compiling a season-low in points and losing to Indiana for the fourth straight time.
Even James Harden, the league's No. 6 scorer, couldn't get started. He was just 3 of 14 from the field and scored only 12 points, primarily against George. It was a disturbing twist for Houston, which had won three of its previous five, had beaten Chicago by 25 points on Wednesday and was trying to keep pace with division-leading San Antonio.
Heck, it couldn't even figure out how to beat the Pacers' stout defence.
"We had no answers for them. They played way better than we did," coach Kevin McHale said. "We weren't moving, we weren't attacking, they had us on our heels all night."
But Indiana also had something else -- motivation.
The Pacers were determined to make someone pay for this week's earlier stumbles, and they didn't care much about who showed up Friday.
Not only did the Pacers finish with a season high 12 3-pointers, but they also had a season high point total, their largest victory margin (33) of the season and their second best field goal percentage of the season (53.1).
Six players scored in double figures and they did all that on a night Roy Hibbert finished with nine points, six rebounds and one block.
How did they do it? The same way the Pacers usually win -- with a balanced and a relentless defence.
"It's a good feeling because when we're at our best, we feel like we're unstoppable," George said. "It was good to come out and play with high energy against a high-energy team."
The Rockets never had a chance on a celebratory night for the Pacers.
Indiana fans gave former All-Star Danny Granger a standing ovation when he made his season debut in the first quarter and chanted his name when he finally made his first basket, a 3-pointer, early in the fourth. Granger missed all but five games last season because of a left knee injury and he was sidelined all of this season by a strained left calf. If he is healthy, and he looked rusty on offence in his first game back, he would give the Pacers even more scoring punch as they try to dethrone two-time defending champion Miami.
But by the time Granger made his entrance, Indiana was already taking control.
Indiana went ahead 12-11 early in the first and spent the rest of the night pulling away.
It led 25-20 after one, made it 41-29 early in the second and then fended off Houston's only real challenge, a 10-0 run that made it 41-39, by closing the half on a 17-6 burst to make it 56-45. Indiana quickly made it 64-49 in the third, sealed the game with a 17-4 spurt.
"They played harder than we did," Howard said. "They brought a lot of extra energy at the beginning of the third quarter and that's what set us apart."
And before it ended, the Pacers led by as many as 36.
"We always say that good teams will bounce back," said George Hill, who had 12 points. "That showed we're a good team."
NOTES: Reserve Luis Scola finished with 13 points and made his first 3-pointer since joining the Pacers during the off-season. ... Houston played without guard Jeremy Lin (back) and Omar Asik (thigh). Asik, who has been the subject of trade rumours, did not make the trip. ... The Rockets were just 13 of 24 from the free throw line.