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.”

Likely top-10 pick Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech makes it official, declares for NBA Draft

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We all knew this was coming, but on Thursday he made it official:

Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver is declaring for the NBA Draft, where he is expected to be a top-10 pick. He made the announcement at a rally on the Tech campus Thursday, then took his message to social media.

Culver, a 6’6” wing player, passes the eye test for an NBA wing, he can shoot from the outside (he only hit 30.4 percent from three this season, but it was 38 percent the season before and his stroke looks good), he can put the ball on the floor and get inside, and he may have the best feel for the game of any wing prospect in this draft. The only question is athleticism — he’s not a classically explosive, and the NBA is loaded with freak athletes on the wing.

Still, Culvert looks like a rotation wing player with the potential to be more, and that should land him comfortably in the top 10 in this draft (likely 5-8).

Nuggets take 13-game losing streak in San Antonio into Game 3

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In 2009, Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the Jazz’s win over the Spurs. Paul Millsap backed him up.

A couple months later, Boozer had 31-13 in another Jazz win over the Spurs. Again, Millsap backed him up.

Late in the 2012-13 season, rookie Damian Lillard led the Trail Blazers to a blowout of the Spurs. Will Barton played three minutes in garbage time.

Those are the only three times current Nuggets starters have won in San Antonio.

After splitting the first two games of their first-round series in Denver, the Nuggets must win at least once in San Antonio to advance. The first opportunity comes in Game 3 tonight.

Denver has lost 13 straight road games against the Spurs – a drought longer than the careers of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. The Nuggets’ other starters didn’t fare much better before joining Denver. Barton went 1-5 in San Antonio with Portland. Millsap went 2-20 in San Antonio with Utah and Atlanta.

Even several notches below their dynasty status, the Spurs remain especially tough at home.

The Spurs went 32-9 at home and 16-25 on the road this season. Maybe that’s an aberration in a limited sample. But they also went 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road last season.

That’s a 79% win percentage at home and 37% on the road. The last time a team had such a large disparity over a two-year span was the 2008-2009 Jazz.

This might just be San Antonio’s post-Kawhi Leonard identity.

Here are the largest home-road win percentage differences in the last decade:

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There’s another possibility: It’s not that the Spurs are that good at home. It’s that they’re that bad on the road.

But San Antonio trailed only the Nuggets, Bucks and Raptors in home record this season.

The Spurs also won Game 1 in Denver, where the altitude has historically given the Nuggets a strong homecourt advantage. If Denver dropped that game to a lousy road team, that’d be its own problem.

Either way, the Nuggets have a real challenge on their hands.

Kevin Porter Jr. a possible lottery pick heading into 2019 NBA draft

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Kevin Porter Jr. missed more than a quarter of his freshman season at USC due to injury. He missed another couple games due to suspension. When he played, he usually came off the bench. He’s only 18.

But Porter has already shown enough to impress NBA teams.

Porter, via Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

“I will be declaring for the 2019 NBA draft and I will be signing with Roc Nation Sports,” Porter told ESPN.

Porter has a wide possible range in the first round, because there’s a massive gap between his ceiling and floor. But it shouldn’t take too long for a team to bet on his upside.

A 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Porter has a special combination of shiftiness and power with the ball in his hands. He can attack the rim and finish above it. He can also pull up for jumpers.

I don’t trust his 41% 3-point shooting at USC. That came on only 68 attempts, and he made just 52% of his free throws (though that was also on an unreliably small sample, just 46 attempts). But his stroke looks compact and smooth.

Porter can be an impressive passer. Right now, that’s more so making quick and correct standstill reads than distributing while driving.

If he improves his handle, that could really tie together all his skills.

Porter forces too many bad shots. He’s not attentive enough defensively. There are questions about his maturity.

But if he pans out at the next level, he could be awesome.

Report: LaMarcus Aldridge won’t face punishment for hitting Gary Harris in nuts (video)

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Late in the Nuggets’ Game 2 win over the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge whacked Gary Harris in the nuts.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

It surely helped that Denver coach Michael Malone defended Aldridge.

Malone, via Mike Singer of The Denver Post:

“If there was a windup, if there was something that looked really deliberate, that’d be different, but from what I saw, and I didn’t spend much time looking at it, obviously who cares what I think?” Malone said. “It all comes down to what the NBA thinks. In watching it, obviously Gary was unfortunately the recipient of that accidental blow but I didn’t see it as something that was premeditated or done with the intent to hurt Gary.”

It also helps that Aldridge doesn’t have a reputation for dirty plays.

But this is what I can’t get totally past: If Aldridge intended to take a cheap shot, how would it have looked any different?