- Heat vs. Pacers: Series Hub
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — George Hill took over as the starting point guard before last season’s playoffs. Now he might be the Indiana Pacers’ most important player when they try to oust the defending champion Miami Heat and punch their own ticket to the NBA Finals on Monday night.
Game 7 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) should be a doozy in Miami. In this unpredictable Eastern Conference Finals that features LeBron James and his struggling sidekicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Heat, an emerging superstar in Paul George and a dominant and unnecessarily verbose center in Roy Hibbert, the quiet, 6-foot-2 Hill stands as the ultimate X-factor.
In three Pacers wins, Hill has averaged 17.7 ppg. In three losses, he’s averaged 8.3, including five points in Game 1 and a single point in the Game 5 loss. In do-or-die Game 6, Hill came through with 16 points and six assists as the Pacers opened a big lead, lost it and then took charge again. Hill played all but 42 seconds of the second half, delivering nine points and four assists with just two turnovers. At the other end, the long-armed Hill helped to hold Miami to 37 second-half points on 34.5 percent shooting.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not really worried about George,” Hibbert said following Indiana’s 91-77 win in Game 6. “He had an off-night [in Game 5]. “He’s a true veteran. He plays beyond his years. He learned through coach [Gregg] Popovich in a great system. He bounces back, he takes pride in himself in offense and defense and he plays both ends of the floor. He recognizes that.”
Hill’s also been getting a steady dose of advice throughout the series from former San Antonio teammate, Spurs point guard Tony Parker, on how to beat the Heat.
Even though he wasn’t scoring in Game 5, his edgy defense still helped the Pacers to a 44-40 halftime lead while also knowing Indiana was wasting a valuable opportunity to widen the the gap on the scoreboard. Two Hibbert free throws put the Pacers ahead 50-49 with 7:14 to go in the third. Then Hill picked up consecutive fouls in the span of nine seconds and headed to the bench with four personals.
Immediately Miami took off, ending the quarter on a 21-6 run.
“He’s an underrated — probably the most underrated point‑guard defender in the game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So when he’s out, or not right, that’s where we suffer the most, is on the defensive end.”
In a series where points are increasingly at a premium, the Pacers know what they’re going to get from their formidable frontline of Hibbert and West, who was tremendous in Game 6 despite being ill with a 100-degree-plus fever before tip.
But they can’t always count on Hill being an aggressive playmaker and getting into the paint. What they need in Game 7 is for the erratic stuff from Hill, as well as starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson, to come to an end on the Heat’s home floor where the two have struggled the most. The third-year Stephenson, a bench-warmer in these two teams’ second-round series a year ago and best remembered for the self-chokehold he applied to mock James, is just 3-for-11 from the floor in the last two games for eight points.
In Game 4, he went 9-for-15 for 20 points. In the Game 3 loss, he was 2-for-10.
In Game 5, reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough had three points. Until late in the game he had outscored Hill and Stephenson combined. It’s been feast or famine for the Pacers’ starting backcourt, and it’s hard to see a Finals berth coming against a determined James on his home floor if Hill and Stephenson shrink under pressure.
“Lance is a young player; plays better at home,” Vogel said. “He has to find a way to bring that magic while we’re on the road. George has been pretty consistent throughout the season. … When he’s aggressive with the basketball, trying to live in the paint, making the extra pass, with his ability to make shots, he just gives us a tremendous lift on the offensive end.”
One the Pacers figure unable to live without in Game 7.