The Indiana Pacers became the second Eastern Conference leader this week to visit the Houston Rockets on March 8. The Pacers used to be the undisputed Eastern leaders, but their lead over the Miami Heat is getting very slippery. The Rockets showed why on March 7, as they not only beat the Pacers, they did it even more convincingly than in their win over the Heat days earlier.
Indiana's 112-86 loss was damaging on many levels, as it sunk into a formerly unheard of three-game losing streak. The Pacers are playing their worst basketball at the worst time, as they now have as many losses as the Heat for the first time. Although Miami lost twice this week to Houston and the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana has been unable to take advantage.
The Pacers still have a game-and-a-half lead over the Heat, because they've played and won three more games so far. Yet the 46-16 Pacers didn't play like an Eastern Conference frontrunner -- although both Indiana and 43-16 Miami were exposed by Houston this week.
At the least, the Heat lost by only three points to the Rockets on March 5, a night after LeBron James' 61-point explosion. The Pacers had no excuses for losing this badly, especially with a third quarter where James Harden scored as many points as the entire Indiana team.
The Rockets as a whole outscored the Pacers by 38-16 in the third, as Harden's 16 in the quarter helped give him 28 for the game. Dwight Howard only needed 15 points and seven rebounds as a result, while only three Pacers scored in double figures.
Although Indiana is crumbling this week, Houston is getting stronger, as it only finds itself two-and-a-half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the West's top seed. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they play in the same division as the even hotter Spurs, who still lead Houston by two games.
The Rockets are establishing themselves as a potentially dangerous third seed, although the Pacers will not slip anywhere lower than a two seed in the weak East. Yet considering how important home court might be against the Heat in a conference final, losing the top seed could be devastating for the Pacers. Nevertheless, playing like they did in Houston would be worse anywhere.