KOKOMO — 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 defense 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 center had 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks — Indiana still managed to manhandle the usually potent Rockets' offense. Houston (17-10) entered the game second in scoring average and third in field goal percentage. It left Indianapolis having shot 38.1 percent 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 defense.