INDIANAPOLIS -- Sports fans in Indiana’s capital city were relieved to see George Hill recovered from his concussion and back in the Pacers’ starting lineup — and that included Indy 500 driver Ed Carpenter, who qualified for the pole position at the Brickyard, then raced downtown to watch Hill chaperone his team past the Knicks.
Two native sons of Indianapolis came up big Saturday, and that has people here who are mad for basketball and fast cars optimistic about their chances of winning again. There’s too much good karma to ignore.
Hill infuses stability and credibility just in time for the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat. Game 1 is Wednesday in Miami. Game 4 is Sunday in Indianapolis, when Carpenter will start from the front row in the 97th annual Indy 500.
Hill is immensely popular in his hometown. He graduated from Broad Ripple High, then chose to attend IUPUI so he could remain close to his family. Now, he is the archetype of the Pacers’ identity: Share the ball, share the burden, share the love.
While Joakim Noah called the Heat “Hollywood as hell,” the Pacers are low on star wattage with the league’s 22nd-ranked payroll. As point guard, Hill keeps everyone content with a win-by-committee approach.
When Hill missed Game 5 against the Knicks because of a concussion, the Pacers blew a chance to end the series. Careless and rash turnovers doomed them in the closing minutes. Lance Stephenson was a poor fill-in at the point.
But with Hill back for the 106-99 Game 6 win, the Pacers committed only nine turnovers compared to 19 from the previous game. Stephenson was freed up to score 25 points and collect 10 rebounds, and Hill clinched the series with 55.7 seconds left when he drove, drew a foul and sank both free throws to put Indiana ahead by six.
“He’s our floor general,” Paul George said of Hill. “He gets us into stuff. He knows what it takes. He is the reason we’re in this position right now.”
Miami’s Norris Cole could be the key to aggravating the unflappable Hill, who spent his first three seasons as a Spur learning the trade from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Cole’s speed and quickness make him not only the Heat’s best on-ball defender but one of the best in the league, in LeBron James’ opinion. Cole can stay in front of Hill and neutralize his 6-9 wingspan.
Hill is averaging 15.6 points, 4.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 turnovers in the playoffs. In the regular season against the Heat, during which the Pacers won two games to the Heat’s one, Hill averaged 6.3 points and three assists on 33 percent shooting.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra relies on Cole and “Fabulous Four” mates Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen, who are supplying 33.6 points, 11 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game off the bench. But Spoelstra really turns to Cole in the fourth quarter to shut down opponents and score timely baskets. Cole’s highlight-worthy dunk over Carlos Boozer regained the lead for Miami late in Game 5 against Chicago.
If Cole continues his postseason improvement, he could complicate Spoelstra’s decisions. Cole, in his second year, is posting better numbers than starter Mario Chalmers. Cole is averaging 8.8 points on 60.4 percent shooting — plus amazing 68.8 percent shooting on three-pointers, a byproduct of his heavy volume of practice from long range.
Cole’s accuracy is drawing defenders and enabling him to be more of a facilitator. Chalmers is averaging 7.0 points and 4.1 assists, but is shooting 42 percent from the field and 24 percent on threes.
Chalmers is a superior playmaker and passer. He knows how to get the ball to the Big 3’s sweet spots, but he also exasperates them at times. Witness Chris Bosh scolding Chalmers in Game 3 — and Noah applauding the encounter with mocking gusto.
Last year, Hill scored 20 in leading Indiana to a 2-1 edge before Miami turned up its intensity and the Pacers went “soft,” as ex-team president Larry Bird said.
This year, Hill will be counted on for his steadying hand — passing the ball to his big men and impeding the kid with the flat top.
“If I’m not out there doing whatever I can do at both ends of the court, I shouldn’t be out there at all,” Cole said. “It’s my competitive nature.”