The Indiana Pacers once had this series in the bag. Now they've got a real headache.
After taking a 3-1 series lead on the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Pacers looked like a deeper, more motivated, more cohesive team than their big-market counterpart. Yet one shot to the head, from Tyson Chandler to George Hill, changed everything.
Hill didn't know he had a concussion last Tuesday, when he took a blow, got up, scored 26 and orchestrated a win. But Thursday, he had one of the full-blown variety, where you need lights out and complete silence. The odds that he'll pass the NBA's concussion test in time to play in Game 6 on Saturday night seem steep, although he is listed as day-to-day.
If Hill plays, the Pacers beat the Knicks, win the series and get ready for the Miami Heat.
If Hill doesn't play, the Knicks will smell blood.
Can the Pacers still win the 8 p.m. Saturday game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indy, with the screaming fans on their side, even without Hill? Sure they can. But it would require simultaneous great nights from Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert. Lance Stephenson will need to stay in the upright-and-locked-in position. D.J. Augustin must defend like his career depends on it. Gerald Green must learn how to throw an entry pass. Some made free throws – the Pacers missed 14 of 33 in their Thursday loss at New York – would be nice.
In other words, without Hill, the Pacers must play near-flawless ball.
The Knicks might have won Game 5 even if Hill had been on the court. Home-court advantage is a real deal, and J.R. Smith seems to have found his shot and his confidence. Chris Copeland and his hair were flying everywhere.
But if the Knicks had won with Hill on the court, there would have been no change in the psychological match-up heading back to Indy. The Pacers would have simply thought “road loss,” and brandished their own home-court bravado (confidence, if you prefer) once back in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But if Hill is out, the Pacers will feel out of sorts, if not out of sync.
The cohesiveness to this team isn't fragile, but is altered by the absence of Hill. Without Hill, the Pacers lose their regular rotation of players and they lose a scorer and a defender who can prevent the Knicks from easy entry into their offense. The Knicks can attack on offense with more energy and confidence.
It'll be interesting to see how Pacers coach Frank Vogel handles the disruption at home. They got the news on Hill fairly late on Thursday, so strategic changes had to be made quickly. Now, Vogel will have had a day off to revamp his approach, to tweak his rotation.
At this point, the Pacers have to presume Hill won't play. The NBA says the tests to determine when a player returns to acceptable health after a concussion is usually a period of “days, if not weeks.” Five days has generally been touted as the minimum, which would leave Hill on the sidelines Saturday.
Vogel's coaching style helps this situation outside of the Xs and Os. He's an even-keel, classic pro-style coach. Yes, he'll show the occasional outrage at perceived blown calls, but for the most part he's a cerebral guy. The fact the team didn't panic, but seemed to become closer, after Danny Granger was ruled out for the season, is a good sign of resilience.
Hill's defense at the point was missed the most in Game 5. It's no slam on Augustin, but he's not as strong a defender as Hill, and when Augustin takes a break, Stephenson is even more of a wildcard to defend the point.
George must continue to play solid defense on Carmelo Anthony, which he did despite Anthony scoring 28 points. Anthony has been playing well, better than his team as a whole, and there's no way to keep such a prolific scorer from putting some points on the board.
The Pacers need Hibbert to stay out of foul trouble. They need to regain their edge in rebounding, with Hibbert and West seizing control of that chore. With Hill out, there won't be any room for error or further short-handed play.
Indiana should be encouraged by the fact they committed too many turnovers, they bricked too many foul shots, they got into too much foul trouble and made too many boneheaded plays and, yet, they still had a chance to win in New York. The Knicks are not the Heat. Not even close.
The Pacers can win without Hill. It'll take a championship-caliber performance from everyone else. It's as simple as it is daunting.