INDIANAPOLIS — The odd adventure that has been the Indiana Pacers’ 2015-2016 season was on display in all of its glory — or inconsistency — on Sunday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the equally up-and-down Houston Rockets.
Indiana (39-34), which lost on the road to 21-win Brooklyn on Saturday night, led Houston (36-38) by 16 points in the third quarter, trailed by five in the fourth quarter and somehow found a method to scratch out a 104-101 victory.
Paul George had 25 points and 11 rebounds, Monta Ellis added 23 points and Ian Mahinmi had 19 points and 11 rebounds as the Pacers held on.
Houston’s Jason Terry had a chance to force overtime, but his 3-point attempt from the right wing was short as time expired.
“This was exactly the kind of game we expected,” said Mahinmi, whose 19 points tied his career high. “We felt really bad about the loss Saturday (at Brooklyn), and we knew we had to have this one tonight. A big thing right now is that we are still learning to play with each other, and we are getting better.”
Mahinmi and Ellis each made one of two free throws in the final 11.7 seconds to help the Pacers hold onto the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Indiana is a half-game ahead of the eighth-place Detroit Pistons, who were idle Sunday.
“After Houston came back and made it a game, we finally did a good job of taking control again at the end,” George said.
James Harden poured in 34 points to lead the Rockets (36-38). Trevor Ariza had 14 points, and Dwight Howard added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Houston remains a half-game ahead of Dallas for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race after the Mavericks also lost Sunday.
“Those 3-pointers are the shots we are comfortable taking,” said Ariza, who was 2 of 8 from beyond the arc. “If the shots are not there, we want to keep moving the ball and look for a better shot.”
The Rockets, who lost their fourth consecutive road game, made only 7 of 33 shots from 3-point range (21.2 percent), their second-worst 3-point shooting percentage this season.
“They missed some open 3-pointers, but overall, I thought our 3-point defense was good,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “They hurt us and got back in the game in the third quarter when they went small, and James Harden really got going.”
A George 3-pointer gave the Pacers a 93-92 lead with 5:43 to play, but Harden answered immediately, pushing the Rockets back in front at 94-93.
Indiana clung to an 81-79 lead through three quarters, but baskets from Harden and Ariza gave the Rockets an 83-81 advantage with 10:44 to go.
Trailing by 16, Houston used a 16-3 run to close to within 70-67 on a Harden 3-pointer with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter. Another Harden 3-pointer tied it at 70 with 3:32 left in the quarter.
“This team defends the 3-point line well,” Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the Pacers. “They force you into taking coverage shots because their length allows them to cover a lot of ground to cover and contest. I thought we got looks we wanted, but always in those situations, you want to put pressure on the rims. But the Pacers do a great job protecting the paint.”
A 3-pointer from George Hill and a steal and layup from Ellis extended the Indiana lead to 67-51 with 7:57 remaining in the third quarter, prompting a Houston timeout. At that point, the Rockets were 2-for-20 from 3-point range.
“Tonight, we needed contributions from everybody to win this game,” said Vogel, noting that the Pacers were playing the second of a back to back. “I thought Solomon Hill came off the bench and gave us some good minutes when Houston went with its small lineup.”
Solomon Hill played only 15:30 but had two points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals and played excellent defense against the Rockets’ perimeter players.
George scored 16 first-half points, and C.J. Miles came off the bench to add 10, helping Indiana seize a 57-47 lead through 24 minutes.
The Rockets, who got 10 first-half points from Harden, missed 14 of their first 15 attempts from 3-point range and finished the opening two quarters 2-for-18 from long distance.
Indiana led 30-24 after the first quarter and increased its advantage to 55-42 on a Mahinmi layup with 1:41 remaining in the half before the Rockets closed within 10 at intermission.
The Pacers outshot the Rockets 47.1 percent to 44.7 percent overall, and Indiana posted a 50-44 rebounding edge.
NOTES: The Rockets were without F Sam Dekker (lower back soreness). … Houston fell to 5-6 in its past 11 games. … Indiana improved to 7-4 in its past 11, including a 120-110 loss Saturday night at Brooklyn, a game in which the Nets outscored the Pacers 35-17 in the fourth quarter. … The Rockets lead the NBA in steals per game at 10.1, and the Pacers are fourth at 9.1. … Houston also leads the league in opponent turnovers per game (16.5). … The Rockets rank fourth in NBA scoring at 106.0. … Houston beat Indiana each of the teams’ past four meetings before Sunday, including 107-103 in overtime on Jan. 10 in Houston. … The Pacers had not defeated the Rockets since Dec. 20, 2013.