When George Hill was healthy in their first round series against the Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers used him consistently as the primary ball handler in side pick-and-roll with LeBron James. Hill is the only other ball handler on the roster that can even moderately hold his own on the defensive end, but his back injury severely impacted his playing time, to the point that he missed Games 4, 5, and 6, as well as the first half of Game 7. Having another ball handler on the floor with James unlocked their offense in a key way—James could now be used as the screener in pick-and-roll.
It was clear from head coach Tyronn Lue’s rotations in Game 7 that Hill was a “break in case of emergency” option only. Despite being active, he didn’t see the floor for the first 30 minutes of the game, only checking in midway through the third quarter when the Pacers took their only lead of the game. After turning the ball over on his first possession to get the jitters out, Hill was as impactful as anybody on the floor for the remaining 19 minutes of the game, in which he never came out. Hill’s play sparked two different runs that put the Pacers at an arm’s length: an 11-3 run that started right after that first turnover, and a 15-5 run to open the fourth quarter, about half of which happened with James off the floor.
A key component of those two runs was the Cavaliers’ left side pick-and-roll, which the Cavaliers mostly get out of their Hawk set. As ever in the NBA, unique ideas don’t stay unique for long, as Cleveland’s Hawk set was shamelessly stolen from the Oklahoma City Thunder, as it was across more than a dozen teams this season. Just like how Spain pick-and-roll has proliferated the league over the past few seasons, Oklahoma City’s Hawk set has spread through the league like wildfire this year.
Cleveland likes to run Hawk with Hill as the primary ball handler because of his ability to attack to the middle of the floor with his right hand and because it puts a different type of pressure on the defense. By the seventh game of the series, Indiana was more than used to guarding James in primary pick-and-roll actions (though he was still successful because, well, he’s LeBron freaking James), but the introduction of Hill, especially after three and a half games out, presented a new challenge for the Pacers to face. The Cavaliers immediately went to Hawk upon inserting Hill into the game:
Hill brings the ball up to the left wing as J.R. Smith makes the Hawk cut off James’ back screen. James then steps into a ball screen for Hill as Smith curls to the right side of the floor, where he uses staggered down screens from Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson to either find an open three-pointer at the top of the key or occupy the defense’s attention away from the Hill-James pick-and-roll. Throughout the remainder of Game 7, Indiana would cover this action in multiple ways, each with its pros and cons. In the clip above, Bojan Bogdanovic pushes James further up the floor, then jumps back to create a gap through which Darren Collison can get under the screen. This also puts Bogdanovic in drop coverage to deal with any penetration from Hill or in case James rolls to the rim. Hill sees the coverage and crosses back over to his left, driving at Bogdanovic to force the switch. From there, James is where he’s at his best: operating with the ball in his hands around the elbow, where we know he’s so dangerous. Here, James finds Smith on the perimeter for an open three after Thompson sets a smart flare screen.
A couple possessions later, the Cavaliers came back to essentially the same set, where they got a huge dunk off the pocket pass to James:
To nobody’s surprise given the result of the play, this was Indiana’s worst coverage of the Cavaliers’ Hawk* set. Bogdanovic did the same thing he did on the previous iteration, pushing James as far up the floor as possible before dropping into more conventional coverage, but rather than jumping in the gap Bogdanovic created for him, Collison tracked Hill over the screen, creating a two-on-one that Bogdanovic was never going to be able to contain by himself. Because Bogdanovic pushed James so far up the floor, Collison’s path over the screen was even longer, which put him further out of the play. Combine that with none of Indiana’s weak-side defenders rotating over to help Bogdanovic and it’s apparent why James strolled right in for the dunk.
*Technically, Smith’s cut isn’t classified as a Hawk cut, but rather a UCLA cut, because he brought the ball up the court and entered the ball to Hill on the wing before making the cut. The movement itself is identical, but the classification is slightly different based on the action preceding it.
Indiana’s combination of jamming James at the time of the screen and sending Collison over is a curious one, to say the least. Given Hill’s compromised health, it would make sense for the Pacers to want him to shoot that off-the-dribble three-pointer, even if it would be relatively wide open, as opposed to jamming James up the floor and still having Collison go over the screen. The next time down the floor, Cleveland ran the same side pick-and-roll, though this time without the Hawk action:
Once again, Bogdanovic got into James, but Collison still fought his way over the screen, ceding an easy driving angle for Hill toward the middle of the floor. Indiana’s weak-side defenders learned their lesson this time, as Domantas Sabonis rotated over slightly to stop Hill’s penetration and although James hits the three in Bogdanovic’s eye at the end of the play, the Pacers were not really punished for their coverage choice.
To combat Bogdanovic’s physicality, Cleveland tried to use a wedge screen preceding the ball screen to free James up to set it where he wants. Smith set the wedge screen, in which a player sets a screen for another player to come across the court, parallel to the baseline, but Bogdanovic sees the whole thing coming and blows it up:
Smith is no match for Bogdanovic’s strength; he just continues to fight with LeBron while simultaneously pushing Smith back into Hill and Collison, mucking up what the Cavaliers were trying to run. Once Smith does finally get out of the way, James is once again pushed very far up the floor and Collison is able to sneak under the screen to meet Hill on the other side. Hill takes the long-range jumper, which falls off the rim. Turning Hill into a shooter could have been a key advantage for Indiana, but they were unable to force him into these bad shots as often as they would have liked.
Cleveland continued to use side pick-and-roll as their main offensive weapon even when James was out of the game. With the left corner empty, Kevin Love had success popping toward that corner, where the Pacers were unable to adequately guard him. The rotation for a weak-side defender is far too long to get there before Love is able to get up his jumper:
Indiana’s defense was better in the second clip, in which Thaddeus Young initially stunted at Hill but wanted to stick to Love on the pop, but Love’s great screen on Collison took the Pacers’ point guard out of the play and forced Young to help on the drive, which opened Love’s jumper. Perhaps Young’s immense help instincts got the better of him here—he could have let Hill drive toward the basket and stuck with his assignment on Love, since the Pacers had their three weak-side defenders in good position to handle anything Hill threw at them, including Sabonis rotating over to contest at the rim if necessary.
This wasn’t the only time in the final quarter and a half the Cavaliers took advantage of Young’s help instincts—watch below how he helped from Kevin Love one pass away and got burned:
Cleveland ran the same Hill-James pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor and Indiana executed perfectly on their coverage: Bogdanovic jammed James up the floor, Collison ducked under untouched by the James screen, but Young inexplicably helped one pass away and gave up the open three.
For the series as a whole, Hill ran 16 left side pick-and-rolls and the Cavaliers scored 16 points, drew two additional fouls, and Hill turned the ball over twice. Obviously, that’s a relatively small sample size based on the three and a half games he played in this series, but Cleveland was confident enough in Hill’s ability to operate in that set that they beat it into the ground in the second half of Game 7.