The Cavaliers are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals after sweeping the top-seeded Raptors on Monday night. But how, and why, were the Cavs able to sweep Toronto when they struggled mightily in a seven-game series with the Pacers?
LeBron James aside, it certainly is amazing what happens when your starting point guard is healthy.
George Hill missed three straight games in that Indiana series. He injured his back in Game 1 as he was bulldozed by a hard screen from Trevor Booker. In Game 3 he was re-injured in the third quarter. He sat out for Games 4-6, and didn’t make his return until the second half of Game 7 after getting round-the-clock treatment and numerous shots in his back, including an epidural.
But missing time gave Hill the chance to not only scout the Pacers, but also understand how he could better help the Cavs once he returned.
“Just being aggressive coming back into the lineup,” he said on Monday talking about what he needed to bring to the team. “Pushing the tempo, making the right plays, getting guys in their spots. Take some pressure where Bron doesn’t have to have the ball in his hands the whole time, where you can create and give him the ball later in the matchup when he has a mismatch and things like that. Just seeing what we were missing in terms of playmaking and just trying to do the best I could.”
It’s safe to say that Hill has backed that up, doing the best he can and then some. As the Cavs took on the Raptors in Game 4 on Monday night, the first quarter wasn’t exactly indicative of how the rest of the night was going to go.
The Cavs traded baskets with the Raptors before taking a 15-12 lead. Two of those baskets were transition dunks from Hill, and another one was a layup. That burst of energy helped stall any Raptors momentum early.
“I was just trying to be aggressive and just play,” he said. “I knew from watching film how they were going under (screens) and I was stopping and trying to create. I was talking to Bron and them about just making it a footrace. Turn the corner and get downhill and things like that, just trying to be aggressive in transition early and set the tempo.”
In Game 4, Hill finished with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and added in five assists. During this series, Hill averaged 10.3 points, three assists and one turnover. With him on the court during the playoffs, the Cavs have a net rating of 12.7. With him off the court, that drops to minus-5.9.
The team turnover and assist numbers are also better with Hill on the court. The Cavs cough the ball up an average of 7.2 times when he’s on the bench versus 6.8 times when he plays during these playoffs. They’re averaging 12.1 assists with him and 10.9 without him. Hill sitting out those three games certainly hurt the Cavs based on numbers alone. In fact, it’s hard not to wonder how the Indiana series would have been different had he been healthy.
“I think G-Hill is a big part of what we’re doing and what we do,” head coach Tyronn Lue said. “When he got hurt in the Indiana series missing three and half games, it really hurt us.
“I think when he went out, you didn’t want Kyle (Korver) or J.R. (Smith) bringing it up, so Bron had to bring it up and do a lot more. So with G-Hill out there and feeling 100 percent it really helps us out offensively. So that allows J.R. and Kyle to get to their spots and be able to knock down open shots.”
As Lue alluded to, what Hill does for the Cavs doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet. Maybe most importantly, he takes the ball-handling pressure off of James. Combine that with his experience and calming presence, and what he adds is oftentimes intangible.
“He’s another added ball-handler, another guy with a high basketball IQ that’s been in big games,” James said. “It helps to have that out on the floor to be able to create not only for himself as he did early on in (Game 4), but just being able to create for others as well. It’s been great for us having him back after the injury.”
His addition has also helped Kevin Love, who was floundering through seven games against Indiana, averaging 11.4 points and 9.3 boards. Hill said that he and Love worked watching film together, with Hill stressing to Love to look for easy shots. He also said the two of them went back to some of the plays from their “elbow” sets that Lue inserted following the trade deadline.
Love also specifically mentioned the benefits to having Hill run pick-and-roll sets with him.
“For me personally, just setting a 1-5 pick-and-roll. That was something that I missed especially in the first series when he was out with his back,” Love said. “I know there’s a lot of times when Bron and I run the pick-and-roll, and they’re able to switch and we’re able to get the ball inside. But a lot of time with the 1-5 pick-and-roll in this series, (Dwane) Casey had them switching. And whether they double-teamed or they stayed put, I was able to go to work.”
The early returns on those changes Hill and Love talked about are positive. Through four games against Toronto, Love averaged 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds. While some of that is Love getting into a mental groove, a big part of his improvement is having Hill to work with and create mismatches.
While Hill has made life easier for his teammates, this is arguably the best he has looked individually since joining the Cavs. Since February, Hill has at times deferred as he adjusted to playing with James and tried to find his rhythm in a new system. The time for that is over, and Hill is now getting back to his old self.
“It’s too late in the playoffs to continue learning, you just have to play,” he said. “I think in the first series I was thinking a lot. Even in the beginning of the year when I got here I was just thinking a lot, trying to be perfect, trying to make the right play rather than just being aggressive. I’ve continued to watch film, working out with the coaches, and I’ve continued to find myself again slowly.”