C.J. Watson Proves What Having Him Back Is Worth

(Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports) /
(Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Pacers have been trying to refurbish their bench for longer than my dad has been trying to fix up his garage. It’s an ongoing project that simply seems destined to never go anywhere.

Though there have been larger issues since The Struggle began for Indiana, the loss of C.J. Watson had an understate role. With Watson — the team’s best bench player this season — out of the lineup for 18 games, it left Frank Vogel with the difficult decision to either go with third-stringer Donald Sloan or let either Evan Turner or Lance Stephenson run the second unit. The coach tried each option and settled on letting the Sloan try to mop up as many of George Hill’s resting minutes as possible. The guy tried his best, but Rob Mahoney of SI’s The Point Forward was spot on when he handed Sloan an imaginary “Most Overwhelmed” award for this season.

Thus, Watson’s return to the court has been big. It immediately fixed the rotation issue and put a capable hand back in control of the second unit offense. He immediately showed his impact, scoring 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting (including 4-for-4 from 3-point range) in 36 combined minutes through his first two games back.

But yesterday, in Indiana’s hope-inspiring win over the Thunder, he really came to play.

He finished the afternoon with 20 points on 10 shots, but his impact felt even larger than the numbers suggest. He knocked down momentum-creating 3s with confidence as the Pacers built their lead and provided arguably the game’s most emotional moment by sticking a triple then, second later, taking an Evan Turner pass and finishing in transition plus the harm. As he laid there on the ground, legs askew and shouting at the ceiling, you could see just how glad he was to be back in uniform. And the capacity crowd responded in kind, yelling back elated that the team had a point guard out there who could look so lively.

Which brings us to George Hill, the often-dour-seeming first-unit floor general who has recently done a lot more swing passing and standing around than anything else on defense. This year has seen too much of the timid version of Hill and never has it been more glaring, or more hurtful to the team, than in Indiana’s previous game, a loss to its rivals from Miami. Hill took zero shots. None. Less than one. In 33 minutes.

Against the Thunder, Hill took just 3 shots and finished with 3 points. Really, given the game that Watson was having, it was no surprise that Vogel went with Watson late in the game in favor of Hill, whose ongoing reluctance to shoot has become increasingly troubling.

In some ways, the lack of shots is part of the team’s evolution. Simply put, Paul George and Lance Stephenson turned into beasts on the wing this year. Paul George has had his struggles since the All-Star break, but it doesn’t change the fact that the ball is now in he and Stephenson’s hands much more than Hill. It isn’t exactly comparable, but the dynamics in Indiana are now closer to Miami, where two ball-dominant wings have the rock for good reason, than they are to the team from last season.

Still, the passivity is also real.

Hill will finish this season with the lowest number of points and field-goal attempts per 36 minutes in his whole career. This includes his first season in San Antonio when he wasn’t always a trusted member of Gregg Popovich’s rotation.

This isn’t just media or fan criticism. Vogel seems to know that the offense needs Hill to be more involved, and according to Scott Agness of Pacers.com, the coach went so far as to rewatch the Heat game with his point guard to note opportunities within the offense for Hill to be more aggressive.

Now, the numbers aren’t everything. Hill still is key to the Pacers best-in-league defense, and he has historically shown up at key times. His career has been built on him impacting the game in ways that don’t appear in the box score.

Still, it will be interesting to see what happens in the playoffs if Hill can’t pull out of his funk. Watson is a bench player in this league for a reason, so he probably can’t be expected to produce on a nightly basis either. But in games when Hill isn’t doing anything and Watson is, one has to wonder if Vogel will continue to call Watson’s number along with the other starters.