James Harden's 44 downs Pacers

Rockets' MVP candidate demoralizes Pacers with 21 free throws in his eighth game of at least 40 points this season.

Another losing streak has reached six games. And it’s probably fair to say the latest loss in this discouraging series of downfalls was to be expected.

The Indiana Pacers have struggled for much of this NBA season to defend guards, stop 3-point shooters and get to the foul line more than their opponents. All are obvious issues affected by the loss of injured two-time All-Star Paul George.

Enter Houston Rockets All-Star guard James Harden, who has been residing on a different NBA planet it seems, a scoring machine who personifies everything needed to exploit the Pacers’ weaknesses.

Harden scored 44 points, including 21 at the foul line, and hit three of his team’s 13 3-pointers in the Rockets’ 110-100 win over the Pacers Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It’s the NBA-leading eighth time Harden has scored 40 points this season, and second such outburst against the Pacers. He had 45 last time. His 21-of-22 free throws were a dubious Pacers record for most ever made by an individual opponent.

The Pacers (30-40) have allowed opponents to make a dozen 3-pointers in nine games; the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks also hit 13 against Indiana. The Rockets (47-23) tied an NBA record with at least 10 3-pointers in 51 games this season. That mark is going down with a dozen regular-season games to go.

It’s the fourth time the Pacers have lost six in a row. That hasn’t happened in a season since 1988-89, or before the guy trying to guard Harden at the start of this night, 24-year-old Solomon Hill, was even born.

“Guys want to win,” forward David West said. He paused, then admitted the obvious, “We’re in scramble mode.”

Despite the latest skid, the Pacers are still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot because the Eastern Conference has several teams struggling to maintain any consistency in this closing stretch. The Boston Celtics (31-39) are one game ahead of the Pacers for the eighth and final playoff spot, although the Celtics have the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Charlotte Hornets (30-39) are one-half game ahead of the Pacers in ninth. Indiana is one-half game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets (29-40).

“We can turn it around,” Pacers reserve forward Luis Scola said. “We’re capable.”

They overcame the three previous losing streaks, one reaching eight games, to get to 30-34 before this latest slide. But defense has been a big problem of late. In the last five games, Pacers opponents have averaged 109.6 points, 12.6 more than their No. 3-ranked seasonal average allowed.

Harden was fouled from the outset. He made all nine of his free throws in the opening quarter as the Rockets led 26-15. Hill already had two fouls and it impacted his offense as he missed four shots and had five turnovers after only one quarter.

The Rockets hit 13-of-24 3-pointers to the Pacers’ 8-of-24. Houston made 35-of-37 foul shots to Indiana’s 12-of-19. Yeah, Harden outpointed the Pacers at the line by himself, and by nine points.

“Once he gets that many free throws that early,” West said, “it’s going to be a long, difficult night.”

It’s not that the Pacers didn’t show some fight. They were trailing by 16 in the third quarter when they made a run and closed to a 68-66 deficit on a Hill dunk with 1:23 remaining.

“I’m really proud of our guys’ effort to not quit in a game against a quality team with an MVP candidate playing at his best,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.

But point guard George Hill didn’t have any success slowing Harden down in the fourth quarter, either. Harden scored 19 points in the final quarter.

“I just need to stay aggressive,” Harden said. “When I do that, the defense gets more timid and they don’t want to foul, so they back off.”

His supporting cast helped, too, as Josh Smith scored 18 points off the bench, including four 3-pointers, and Donatas Motiejunas had 17 points.

Reserve guard C.J. Watson led the Pacers with a season-high 23 points. George Hill scored 20 and center Roy Hibbert 18.

The Pacers hit the road now with four of their next five away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They visit the Washington Wizards (40-30) on Wednesday night.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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