Zero to hero: The Bucks' George Hill is finally having his playoff moment
With 6:20 left in the third quarter in Game 4 of Milwaukee's second round series with Boston, Bucks reserve guard George Hill checked in for Khris Middleton. Middleton was headed to the bench to join Giannis Antetokounmpo, where the two All-Stars were forced to sit with four fouls apiece.
The third quarter had proven to be the decisive period in the previous three games of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the Bucks were trailing the Celtics 63-61 on the road, could not buy a basket from the perimeter and their two stars were glued to the bench.
But then, the unthinkable happened. The Bucks' bench mob – guided by cast-offs Hill, Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova – flourished to close the third, as Hill led the way with nine points on 3-4 shooting and an assist during the game's pivotal run. When Hill checked out with 20 seconds remaining in the quarter, the Bucks had turned a two-point deficit into a 10-point lead, allowing a well-rested Antetokounmpo to seal the deal in the fourth.
Hill – who had looked like a shell of his former self for nearly two calendar years – was perhaps the Bucks' best player in Boston this side of Giannis, averaging 18-4-4 across Games 3 and 4 while Eric Bledsoe worked through his familiar spring shooting woes. But the 11-year vet's story didn't just begin this weekend.
In 2008, the San Antonio Spurs drafted Hill out of notorious hoops powerhouse IUPUI (he is the only Jaguar to ever crack the NBA) where he quickly became one of Gregg Popovich's darling players, Hill thrived off the bench for the Spurs for three seasons and even overlapped with then-Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, but on draft night in 2011, he was ultimately shipped to Indiana for a raw San Diego State forward who the Pacers had just taken with the no. 15 pick.
That player, of course, turned out to be Kawhi Leonard, whose play swiftly made the trade one of the most lopsided deals in league history, even as Hill went about his business as an effective starter for the Pacers.
While Leonard was thriving as a Finals MVP in San Antonio, Hill and the Pacers were banging their heads against the wall in the East, as LeBron James and the star-studded Miami Heat bounced Indiana from the playoffs in three straight seasons, including twice in the conference finals.
In 2016-17, the Pacers eventually shifted gears, trading Hill to the Utah Jazz, where he averaged a career-high 16.9 points per game, albeit during an injury-riddled campaign. The Jazz won 51 games and advanced to the second round of the postseason for the first time in seven seasons, but Hill's unlucky honing beacon once again alerted a historic buzzsaw, this time in the form of the re-energized Golden State Warriors. Hill ultimately missed the final three games of the series with a toe injury, and Utah was easily swept aside.
After an extremely brief stop in Sacramento to start the 2017-18 season, Hill landed on LeBron's last-gasp Cleveland squad, where he very clearly never became comfortable under James' taxing regime. Cleveland was able to advance out of the Eastern Conference, but once again, hammer meet nail – the Warriors diced up Hill and the Cavs all series en route to a four-game Finals sweep. (Hill actually had a chance to win Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, but his missed free throw led to the infamous JR Smith meme moment.)
And just like that, LeBron was gone, Kevin Love was hurt and Hill was rotting away for a tanking Cleveland team with a rookie point guard breathing down his neck. Things seemed destined for an ignoble finish for the once-proud player.
That is, until Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst swooped in to snag Hill as a part of a three-team trade in early December. The Bucks sorely needed more ball handling in their backcourt, and even an aging Hill figured to slot in nicely behind the mercurial Bledsoe.
Still, it was not exactly a smooth transition for Hill in Milwaukee. He only scored nine total points in his first four games after the trade, and ultimately averaged just 6.8 points per game on 42 percent shooting with the Bucks on the year.
But he started to find his way as the season progressed, particularly down the stretch. Over his final 10 regular season games, Hill's shooting and scoring numbers ticked back towards career levels. He cracked 20 points in back-to-back April road victories against Brooklyn and Philadelphia, his first time hitting that mark in consecutive games since February 2017 with Utah.
There was just a little more juice, a little more verve in his game, something that has certainly translated to the first eight contests of this playoff run. Hill is averaging 12-3-3 on 54/39/82 percent shooting thus far in the postseason. Defensively, his trademark 6-foot-9 wingspan has caused all sorts of problems for the Pistons and Celtics guards. He is pushing the ball up the floor and, more importantly, looking to score when the opportunity arises.
In Game 3, he hopped in a time machine for this shockingly high-flying dunk late in the third quarter, his first in-game dunk since early February.
The newly minted 33-year-old isn't always going to have his A-game, but his newfound confidence has the Bucks well positioned to stave off Bledsoe's occasional playoff clunker. Budenholzer has also played the two point guards together periodically this spring, cramming even more ball handling, speed and defensive intensity alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton against the versatile Celtics.
After charging head-on into historic dynasties for the bulk of his 109 previous playoff games, it's refreshing to see Hill grab a leading role for the league's latest budding empire, even as he slides towards the final stage of his career. Hill has been reunited with his Spurs-era compadre Budenholzer, looks as comfortable as ever on the floor and is shaking off his playoff demons during one of the biggest junctures in Bucks franchise history.
We'll see how long Milwaukee can ride this playoff wave, but at least for now, George Hill is finally having his postseason moment.
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