The Houston Rockets are mercurial. Trailing the Indiana Pacers by 16 with 7:58 to play in the third quarter on Sunday, it appeared they were going to slink to another loss. Instead, they finished the quarter on a 28-14 run and built up a five-point lead in with six minutes to play. They were primed to pick up a much-needed win in the race for the eighth playoff spot in the West.
The bad Rockets returned, though. The offense went ice-cold and the Rockets coughed up the lead as the Pacers took advantage of a lackadaisical defense on their way to a 104-101 win.
The loss dropped the Rockets to 36-38, which puts them eighth in the West standings. They're a half-game behind the Utah Jazz in seventh and a half-game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks for the final playoff spot.
Sunday's loss to the Pacers was a microcosm of the Rockets this season. At moments they look capable of returning to the Western Conference Finals, and at others, they look like a lottery team. Through the first half and into the third quarter, they were straight-legged and a step behind on defense and stagnant on offense -- relying on isolation plays for Harden, who had 34 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. They looked uninterested.
That changed when the Rockets went small. Harden teamed up with K.J. McDaniels, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela and Houston was off and running. Not only did the Rockets erase a 16-point deficit, there was a new energy to the team -- more hustle, more excitement. Harden was the driving force behind the offense like always, but there was more action on both sides of the court.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they only had that energy for about 12 minutes of game time. The Pacers outplayed them down the stretch as the Rockets scored only field goal in the final 5:30. There was no sense of urgency, and they were outworked down the stretch:
If the Rockets are going to make the playoffs, they need to solve their effort problem. It has been a problem all season -- the Rockets have needed to try harder since firing Kevin McHale in November. With only eight games remaining, they're running out of time to figure it out.
There was, at least, a shred of hope even in the loss. The Rockets found a lineup that made them tick. With a favorable remaining schedule -- they face only three teams with a record at .500 or above in their final eight games and the Mavericks are imploding, too -- the Rockets can pull this off. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff must get the most from his team -- and it needs to be for more than 12 minutes per game.
3 other things we learned
The undermanned Dallas Mavericks don't stand much of a chance
The Sacramento Kings routed the Mavericks 133-111 on Sunday behind a career-best 21 points from rookie Willie Cauley-Stein. The Mavericks were missing Deron Williams, who was out with an abdominal strain, and Chandler Parsons, who is out for the season. Without two of their best players, the Mavericks just aren't that great of a team. Dirk Nowitzki can turn back the clock every once in a while, but he's not quite the player he used to be. The Mavericks have lost three straight and would be watching their playoff hopes dwindle if their challengers weren't struggling, as well. They have lost 10-of-12 games and it doesn't appear there's an antidote. Whichever team makes the playoffs in the West will back their way in.
The Pacers are hanging on for their playoff lives
Even if the Rockets are a disaster, the Pacers played themselves to a big win on Sunday. Paul George had 25 points and 11 rebounds as the Pacers withstood the Rockets run and came out with a victory to move to 39-34. They're currently a half-game up on the Detroit Pistons for the seventh spot in the East with the Chicago Bulls two games back of the Pistons. After a superb first month of the season, George was merely solid in December and January. He has steadily improved as the season progresses, however, averaging 23.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in March. With his continued great play, the Pacers seem poised to keep a playoff spot. From there, they're capable of giving a scare to either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors in the first round.
Klay Thompson is catching fire at the right time
Thompson put up 40 points for the second game in a row as the Warriors coasted to their 66th win of the season with an easy victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Thompson was 15-of-27 from the field and 7-of-14 from deep two nights after going 13-of-25 from the field and 9-of-16 from behind the arc. It's no secret that the Warriors are so deadly because they have so many weapons, but Thompson wasn't spectacular in last year's NBA Finals. If he's making shots at a 50 percent clip in the playoffs, the Warriors are going to be even more impossible to beat.
Play of the night
The Clippers will get Blake Griffin back on April 4, but DeAndre Jordan didn't need him on Sunday. Jordan was a monster on both sides of the ball in the Clippers 105-90 win over the Nuggets, scoring 16 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and swatting six shots. This offense into defense possession was all Jordan -- not that a Chris Paul pass hurt.
2 fun things
* * *
March Madness: How big of a Cinderella story is Syracuse?
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more