George Hill, after unhappy season, leading depleted Pacers in playoff push

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BOSTON – George Hill doesn’t shy form describing how last season went for him.

“I wasn’t happy,” the Pacers point guard said. “I felt like, to play the way I want to play, I’ve got to be happy. The way things finished off last year and me not feeling like I was that involved on the offensive end and things like that, I wasn’t happy.”

He also didn’t shy away from doing something about it – and the results have been a quietly spectacular season that has the Pacers still in the playoff race despite losing Paul George (to injury) and Lance Stephenson (to the Hornets).

Hill began his offseason regimen the day after Indiana eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals, according to Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Hill said he was often in the gym three times per day.

“We had to ask him to back off several times,” Vogel said.

Said Hill: “I didn’t ease up. I kept going. He can say that all he wants, but I’m the player. I wanted to get better. So, there was no easing up for me.

“I’m a person that, once I’ve got my mind made up, there’s no knocking me off that course.”

Hill said he was intent on “just getting back to who I was in college… get back to being myself.”

In college, Hill was a big fish in a small pond.

He starred at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) from nearly the moment he arrived as the reigning Indiana high school scoring leader. Unlike Damian Lillard, who went to Weber State because bigger programs overlooked him, Hill held scholarship offers from Indiana and Temple and was courted by Florida.

Hill chose hometown IUPUI, which hadn’t been a Division I team even a decade, so his ailing great grandfather, Gilbert Edison, could see him play. Unfortunately Edison died before Hill began his college career.

But Hill, stating the loyalty Edison taught him, refused to transfer. Besides, Hill believed the NBA would find talent anywhere – and he believed he had plenty of talent.

So does Vogel, even when there were limits on Hill’s ability to show it.

Hill, whose usage percentage had never cracked 20, saw it plummet to 14.8 last season – tied for lowest among starting point guards:

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“I knew that when he was getting criticism last year for not being the point guard that everyone thought that this team needed, I thought it was unfair, that he was capable of carrying a much bigger load,” Vogel said. “And he’s proven that this year.”

Hill’s usage rate has soared to 24.7.

All along, he planned to carry a bigger load, but without George and Stephenson, Indiana really needs it.

Hill is averaging career highs in points (16.4) and rebounds (3.9) per game, and his 4.7 assists per game are within a hundredth of his career high. Yet, he’s playing just 28.4 minutes per game, his fewest since becoming Indiana’s starter.

As a result, Hill is posting career highs in points (blue), assists (gold) and rebounds (gray) per 36 minutes:

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Unfortunately for the Pacers, despite Hill’s breakout season, they still might miss the playoffs. They’re two games out and 11th in the Eastern Conference entering  tonight’s pivotal contest with the 10th-place Hornets.

Don’t blame Hill for Indiana’s perilous position, though.

Hill missed the first 28 and 39 of the first 44 games of the season due to injury. Before he got healthy, the Pacers looked cooked. But he – along with David West, who also began the season injured – has rejuvenated them.

They’re 20-16 with Hill and 12-27 without him. They outscore opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court (equivalent of fifth in the league) and get outscored by 3.4 per 100 when he’s not (24th).

The biggest gains have come offensively, where Indiana had really fizzled.

Hill runs more pick-and-rolls than before, serving as the defined playmaker he wasn’t last season. And he has hit several huge shots:

At this point, it’s probably worth taking a step back and remembering Hill was hardly a bad player before this season – even in a limited role. He defended well, hit spot-up shots, kept the ball moving and, perhaps most importantly, kept turnovers down. He started for a team that won 105 games and four playoff series the previous two years.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Mike Conley were the only players to post more win shares both of the last two seasons.

But as the player Indiana trade for him, Kawhi Leonard, became the youngest NBA Finals MVP since Magic Johnson, Hill saw expectations for him rise. Being a low-usage complementary player was no longer enough.

He has taken that challenge head on, and he’s succeeding. Not only has Hill increased his load, his efficiency has remained in tact. He’s shooting a career-high 48.3 percent from the field, and his 3-point percentage is a solid 36.5. Despite having he ball in his hands more, his turnover rate remains low.

Hill, because he fit his role so well, posted All-Star-caliber numbers in certain advanced stats prior. Now, his numbers are up and he looks like an All-Star.

Beyond lifting Indiana into the postseason, other challenges loom.

Stephenson (probably, at least) isn’t returning. But at some point, whether or not it’s this season, George will. When that happens, what will Hill do?

“I’m going to continue to be myself,” Hill said. “I think I’ve established myself now and showed everybody what I can do. There’s no turning back now.”

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.