James Harden stirred the pot again Monday night.
That's become his signature celebration when scoring. He’ll twirl his left index finger continuously to signify “something’s cooking.”
The NBA MVP candidate served up 44 points in the Houston Rockets’ 110-100 road win over the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He had 15 points, nine on free throws, after only one quarter. That was as much as the Pacers had scored as a team in falling behind by 11.
The Pacers seemed powerless to stop him. He finished with his eighth game of at least 40 points, the most this season for any player in the league. This effort was one point shy of the last time these two teams met Jan. 19, a 12-point Rockets win in Houston.
Asked afterward what his team needed to do defensively, Pacers coach Frank Vogel didn’t hesitate.
“You’ve got to absorb contact and show your hands,” he said. “Put your hands in the cookie jar, he swings his arms through ‘em and the whistle blows pretty quickly.”
Vogel smiled at the end of his summation. Harden made 21-of-22 free throws, a Pacers record for most ever by an individual opponent. Indiana, as a team, made 12-of-19.
Asked later if the Pacers were guilty of not keeping their hands out of the cookie jar enough, Vogel said, “Clearly we didn’t. Twenty-two free throw attempts.”
Harden suggested it was business as usual for him as the Rockets (47-23) handed the Pacers (30-40) their sixth consecutive loss.
“It’s just a matter of me making a lot of crafty plays like I do every single night,” he said.
Added Vogel, “He knows all the tricks.”
Solomon Hill typically draws the other team’s best scorer. But Harden drew two fouls from him in the first quarter. And the lack of success on the defensive end clearly impacted Hill on offense, where he missed all four of his shots and had five turnovers.
“I thought ‘Solo’ did a good job of fighting him,” Pacers forward David West said, “(but) he got going. It was tough for us.”
Hill is 6-7, two inches taller than Harden, but that length was quickly neutralized with the officials blowing the whistle. In the fourth quarter, 6-3 point guard George Hill was trying to use his quickness to stall the scorer.
Neither Hill had much success.
“Harden did an excellent job of just keeping them in the game,” said Pacers rookie Damjan Rudez. “Whenever they needed a basket, they went to him and they managed to get to the free throw line.”
Harden hit three 3-pointers and finished 10-of-21 from the field. He drove and hit shots. He backed off Hill and drilled step-back jumpers.
All George Hill could do afterward was congratulate Harden on a good game. Two-time All-Star Paul George also chatted with Harden on court afterward. The two were together on Team USA when George broke two bones in his lower right leg during an Aug. 1 scrimmage in Las Vegas.
George was the Pacers’ best performer last season, so it’s nights like these when he’s missed the most. The latest update on his possible return, offered earlier in the day, was still the same. George is uncertain when he’ll be back, but he’s still hopeful.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.