The NBA playoffs are a week old, and discussing Roy Hibbert's collapse is now passe. Until we know the true cause—if there is one at all—of Hibbert's struggles, there's not much left to say about the big man losing his basketball identity.
But with the No. 1 seed in the East facing a 2-1 deficit to an Atlanta Hawks team that would have finished 11 games out of postseason contention in the West, dissecting the Pacers' woes remains a confounding yet addictive pursuit.
Indiana's slide began as a team-wide issue over the second half of the season. Every player in the rotation—save for David West and C.J. Watson—saw their scoring dip (even if slightly) after the All-Star break. Only Watson and Luis Scola shot better in the final 30 games of the season than they did in the first 52.
Looking at team statistics through the first week of the playoffs, the Pacers rank in the middle of the pack in terms of field-goal percentage and are the fourth-best group from beyond the arc. They are grabbing a larger share of available rebounds than all but one team (Toronto) and have the fourth-best assist ratio (assists per 100 possessions), according to NBA.com.
The numbers suggest Indiana is playing at least decent basketball, especially when compared to Atlanta's numbers. Much of that should be credited to Scola's solid play off the bench and Paul George and Lance Stephenson filling up the box score, however inefficiently. But they still haven't convinced anyone that they belong in the next round, let alone the conference finals.
Where do we point the finger? Hibbert's minutes have decreased in each of the last two games to the point where Ian Mahinmi got more tick in Game 3, and the Hawks won. While the Pacers have been pretty bad with Hibbert on the floor, they haven't been much better with him on the bench. Take a look at the team's offensive and defensive ratings with each player on/off the floor, per Basketball-Reference.com:
George Hill's row in the table provides interesting insight into this series: the Pacers are no better offensively with Hill on the floor than when he sits. Discount the plus-18 he registered in Indiana's third quarter of Game 2—their only dominant period in 12—and his plus/minus would look much worse.
For any number of reasons, Indiana's point guard often gets overlooked publicly whether things go well or the wheels fall off. Maybe it's his general passivity on the court that makes him appear invisible. Perhaps it's because he rarely attracts camera attention with his fixed facial expression. Whatever the reason, he remains an important piece to Indiana's success, as outlined by 8points9seconds' Jared Wade:
In the 2013 playoffs, the Pacers were 10-1 when George Hill scored 14 or more points. When he scored 13 or fewer, they went 1-6. Numbers can be used to validate virtually any opinion, but that’s about as cut-and-dry as it comes.
He also acknowledges that Stephenson's emergence as a No. 2 offensive threat has altered Hill's role. But if the NBA is turning into a point guard-driven league, the Pacers are behind the curve. For one, much of the offense funnels through (or stops at) Stephenson and George on the wings. And Hill doesn't exactly fit the mold of a true point guard. He admitted as much after the game, referring to himself simply as a guard to reporters after Game 2.
"That’s what I've been my whole life, a scorer at the wing spot," Hill said.
You could make the argument that Indiana will never hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy with Hill "running the offense." That phrase sits in quotes because while the former Spur does in fact bring the ball up the floor, his involvement in the offense often consists of immediately passing to a teammate at the top of the key and hanging out on the weakside wing. Wade put this video together to prove it:
An already anemic 18.6 usage rate in 2012-13 dropped to a barely visible 14.6 this year, per ESPN.com. Jose Calderon (16.4) and Patrick Beverley (14.3) were the only other point guards to play 30 minutes a game and be within sniffing range of Hill's numbers. Ironically, he was recently nominated as a finalist for the Kia Community Assist Award, though fortunately, it has nothing to do with his on-court performance.
How will the Pacers-Hawks series end?
It's no wonder Hill posted the worst offensive season of his career on a per-36-minute basis since his rookie year. It's difficult to tell just looking at box scores, but the trend continues into the playoffs. Yes, Hill shot 5-of-8 in each of the first two games and hit near his averages with 13.5 points and three assists. He also went 1-of-11 in Game 3 and is 0-of-7 from three for the series.
Hill just isn't getting himself involved all that much. His 9.24 playoff PER on ESPN.com sits nuzzled between Mike Scott and Danny Green. According to NBA.com, his 67.3 touches per game rank 13th among point guards—15th if you include Joakim Noah and LeBron James as point-center and point-forward—and it shows:
George Hill just gave the Hawks two points because he decided to catch a pass with one hand.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 25, 2014
Pacers have two starters--Hibbert and George Hill--who are playing with no confidence. It's killing them.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) April 25, 2014
Put George Hill on the bench and tie him to it with that type of rope that tug boats use.— netw3rk (@netw3rk) April 25, 2014
Indiana's only glimmer of hope in the last week came in the second half of Game 2. Hill scored all 15 of his points after the break, sharing the backcourt with Watson for 12 minutes until Vogel pulled the starters. Just two of his eight shots came outside the paint, and he missed both. David West believes the difference in the Pacers' play is "night and day" when Hill is aggressive, as he was in that half.
If Game 2 was a sunny afternoon, Game 3 was pitch-black midnight. Hill went away from what worked in the Pacers' only victory in the series, taking over half of his attempts from outside the lane.
It makes sense for Watson to handle the ball when they share the floor, but that shouldn't give Hill more license to fade into the background. The scariest thing about West's comment is that it really is up to Hill whether he wants to be aggressive or not, something he acknowledged himself:
This is what the team needs and I just need to stop playing safe. I feel like when I play safe and not trying to turn the ball over or worry about getting guys involved, that's when I tend to not be aggressive.
It's not as if shots just aren't falling or Atlanta has come up with the ultimate game plan.
And then there's defense.
Jeff Teague famously burned Hill for 28 points in Game 1, forcing Vogel to switch George onto the Hawks point guard and Hill onto Kyle Korver. Hill did well to limit Korver to just three points on 1-of-5 shooting in Game 2. But he looked lost in Game 3, including leaving Korver alone in the corner to help cover an invisible man in the paint, allowing the sharpshooter to nail the coffin shut:
Hill needs to leave his fingerprints all over this series if Indiana hopes to survive and face either Washington or Chicago—two teams it matches up with much better. If the Pacers become the sixth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round, Larry Bird will have to think hard about making an upgrade at the point guard position in the offseason.