By Dan Clayton
The Indiana Pacers’ scored a consequential win on Monday night, and did so at the expense of an old friend.
The 107-100 victory over the Utah Jazz — combined with an Atlanta loss in Charlotte — moved them to just a game back of the reeling Hawks for the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed. With a fairly tame schedule remaining that includes a home date with those Hawks, the Pacers gave themselves a chance to control their own destiny with this convincing, almost wire-to-wire win.
Indiana native Gordon Hayward had a career night for the Jazz in a losing effort, but it was a pair of late-starting former teammates whose duel defined the final stretch.
The last time Jazz guard George Hill faced off against his old club, he dominated with 30 points in a January home win. This time around, the former Pacer started slow, missing his first four triples and sitting on just six points after three quarters. The IUPUI product performed elsewhere — six rebounds, five dimes — but the first 36 minutes were rough in his first trip back to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse after five years as a regular tenant.
His former teammates and current Pacers star Paul George didn’t have a much more auspicious start, either. The All-Star small forward didn’t hit a field goal before halftime, taking just two points into the locker room at the break. But then it was precisely those two who faced off in the fourth quarter.
Each had 10 in the final frame, at times answering each other directly. George nailed a three in the final to minutes to restore a two-possession lead. And on the next possession, Hill drove, drew contact and flung the ball skyward for an unlikely three-point play. George had the final say, scoring five points in a 14-second span to put the game away for Indiana. But the visit from Hill — and his late explosion — beg for a bit of a reset on Indiana’s summer swap of point guards.
Jeff Teague, the player Indiana netted in the three-team deal that sent Hill to Utah, is playing well for the Pacers. He’s a 15-point, eight-assist speedster who is producing more than the 2015-16 version of Hill did by most measures (three-point shooting being the notable exception). At 36 percent, he’s shooting well enough from three for those possessions to represent an above-average possession, even before you factor in the effect that shooters have on defenses even on plays that don’t end with them as the button men. He’s good, and Indiana is good with him.
But revisiting the trade after 70 games also requires a look at this new, freer Hill who is averaging career highs in points, attempts, threes (taken and made), true shooting and a close second in usage. He’s a 17-point scorer for Utah, and that’s after some heavy regression that happened after he missed a bunch of time with a toe sprain.
Would Hill have taken a similar leap in Indy? It’s hard to say. He looked about as good in the 2014-15 season while filling in as a primary option for an injured Paul George, so this iteration of Hill was in there somewhere, and the Pacers had to know that. The choice of Teague over Hill was mostly a style choice, not a tier-to-tier upgrade.
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Hill is twice as likely as Teague — this season anyway — to end a possession with a catch-and-shoot attempt: 2.8 shots off the catch to his successor’s 1.4. The script is flipped when it comes to drives: Teague drives (9.9 times per game) and shoots on the drive (4.9) much more than Hill (6.3 and 2.9, respectively). Indiana just chose a guy who puts pressure on defenses in a slightly different way.
And that’s a fair ask because, as good as Hill has been for Utah, he can also be a bit on the deliberate side. Utah’s offense is that way anyway, but post-injury Hill has been a lot less forceful while he dribbles sideways next to a pick and surveys, scrutinizes and plans. He’s not really using picks in a way that capitalizes on the advantage they create.
The Jazz’s pace — already slowest in the league — gets even slower with Hill in command of the offense. Slow offenses can be efficient too, as the Jazz showed early, but lately the lack of decisiveness is effecting Utah’s shot quality on a lot of possessions. The Jazz have slipped from having a good offense to having an average one. And since the break, the offensive efficiency is hardly better when Hill plays (105.9) as it is overall (105.3). That’s especially damning given that Hill’s backups aren’t exactly the bright spot of Utah’s rotation.
This could easily be explained by a bad toe. If it hurts every time a player tries to push off, that could explain why Hill often tries to slide across picks instead of exploding through them. That’s understandable. But Utah needs to figure this out, because their sudden slump came at the wrong time, and Hill also figures prominently into some big future planning questions.
The loss to Indiana was the club’s third straight. Utah currently sits in fourth place in the West, but their trio of missteps have reduced their lead over the trailing Clippers to just one game in the loss column. L.A. can also clinch the tiebreaker when they host the Jazz this week. Utah’s tough remaining schedule makes them vulnerable to further slippage, too; they still have five more games against top-10 teams in the league, more than anybody else fighting for seeds four through seven.
And regardless of the outcome of Utah’s final 11 games of the postseason run that will follow for some length of time, then comes an off-season when Hill can simply walk. The Jazz spent a lottery pick to add Hill (albeit a late one, sending the No. 12 overall to Teague’s Atlanta Hawks as their contribution to the three-teamer). So watching him walk after 82 games as a Jazz man — he has missed 27 of those, by the way — could be a development they remember for a long time.
And yet paying him will be a big decision. ESPN’s Tim McMahon recently said that Hill’s camp is “absolutely convinced” he can get a max offer in free agency. Since his max starts at $35 million and change, that’s a pretty serious decision for Utah to make. They could be paying Hill, Hayward and Rudy Gobert a combined $85 million as early as next season. Granted, the cost of losing Hill might be scarier, but it’s still a reason to want to see the more effective Hill they got early on the campaign.
The Jazz’s decision on Hill might be carry consequences with their other 2017 marquee free agent. Hayward will opt out of his final year to cash in on a rising star and a higher cap, and Hill’s departure could make it easier for him to justify looking around. Right now, Utah’s pitch is that they can offer continuity, more money and a better team than all but five teams, at last by 2016-17 record. Without Hill, the “competitiveness” bullet of their July 1 talking points takes a hit. The Jazz’s rumored interest in top Euro guard Milo Teodosic doesn’t exactly fill a Hill-sized gap, nor does Deron Williams’ reported “desperate” desire to return to Utah or all but the most aggressive estimates on Dante Exum’s year-over-year development. Losing Hill would be a hit. Paying him would be a sacrifice.
In the meantime, the Jazz have 11 more games with Hill at the helm, and a lot hands on the results of those three weeks of basketball.