This is the first contribution to 8p9s by Dylan Hughes. You can follow him on Twitter at @Dylan_Hughes24.
The Indiana Pacers have carried their late-season struggles into the playoffs, and now they head into Game 4 in Atlanta down 2-1 in the series. Many teams approach the playoffs as a fresh start, a new season to turn things around and leave any woes they had back in the regular season. Indiana acted as if they would come out and play like the team the world loved in the first three months of the season, but instead dropped the ball offensively and lost Game 1 at home.
The energy inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse was high from the opening tip to the closing seconds of the first half. A horrific third quarter put the Pacers in a deep enough hole that voided a possible rally late in the fourth quarter and silenced the crowd. The team played awful, especially offensively, but a specific player’s lacking defensive presence helped push the Hawks past Indiana in Game 1, and that player goes by the name of George Hill.
Hill’s ability to keep speedy point guards in front of him has never been his strong suit, but it’s never been bad enough to hurt Indiana’s credibility as defensive masterminds. In Game 1, however, it was pretty much that bad. Hill let Indiana-native Jeff Teague tally 28 points, 9 of which came from the charity stripe. Hill’s offensive output helped ease the pain somewhat (he recorded 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting), but Teague certainly outshined him while leading his team to victory.
Paul George knew his teammate was struggling with Teague, and took the bulk of the responsibility in Game 2. Teague’s point total was cut in half (he scored 14 in Game 2), proving George should remain on the stud point guard throughout the series. Moreover, Hill’s offensive output was even better, with 15 points (on 5-for-8 shooting) as he aggressively set the tone while Indiana pulled away with a dominant third quarter.
When the series shifted south to Atlanta, however, things also went south for Hill. He scored a mere 4 points on 1-for-11 shooting in a loss on the Hawks’ home court. While the poor shotmaking was troubling throughout the game, the most glaring representation of Hill’s struggles came almost immediately after Frank Vogel showed confidence in his starter.
Fans and media members alike were shocked when the coach subbed out C.J. Watson in favor of Hill with 5:35 to play. The current lineup had been working. The Pacers had been inching closer on the scoreboard, and a Hawks’ lead that was 12 early in the fourth had recently been cut to as few as 4.
Then, 45 seconds after checking in, Hill made an egregious turnover on the wing. He just gave the ball away, and Atlanta was off to the races.
Teague threw down a thunderous dunk, the Highlight Factory crowd erupted, Vogel called a time out, and Larry Bird looked uneasy in the stands. Atlanta now led by 9 and had all the momentum.
So often, the argument is that Hill brings a lot to the table outside of the stat sheet. He has playoff experience, shows leadership qualities, and understands the moment. In this case, he took away more than the box score shows. This was just one turnover, on paper, but it felt like a nail in the coffin to the Pacers’ hopes.
This, along with the relatively high production from backup C.J. Watson since his return from injury, has to be putting pressure on Frank Vogel to consider moving his starter to the bench.
The benching of Roy Hibbert has been talked about even before the playoffs began, but benching Hill may be just as important if he can’t contain his assignment defensively, maintain a steady scoreline offensively, or simply not make mistakes.
Although Watson hasn’t been spectacular thus far in the series, he has proven in past games he can be very effective with starting minutes. He is scoring 12.2 points per 36 minutes so far against Atlanta compared to Hill’s 10.7. Way more importantly, Watson is providing a deep threat, so far hitting 5-of-9 (55.6%) 3-pointers in this series. Hill has made 0-of-7 shots from behind the arc.
To keep up with Teague’s ability to score, you’ve got to either play great defense or keep up on offense. C.J. has struggled at times defensively in this series as well, but he is more likely to put up good enough numbers offensively to match Teague. And again, he can spread the floor better — at least until Hill gets out of his funk and remembers how to shoot.
Hill is a veteran, and one would expect him to improve. He has shown his ability to contribute at critical times in past Pacers’ playoff runs. So it is no surprise that Vogel continues to have confidence in his starter — even if it often looks like Hill doesn’t have much confidence in himself.
But until we see Hill out there on the court producing, it is time for Watson to get more time. The outcome of Game 4 — and the whole first round series — could depend on it.