The Cleveland Cavaliers cannot beat the Boston Celtics—or avoid a sweep in the NBA Finals—unless George Hill plays well. That’s sobering analysis for a team that boasts a one-man hurricane at the peak of his powers, but Hill’s postseason experience, proven two-way ability, and sensical fit beside LeBron James make him an irreplaceable difference maker for a group so desperate for a steady hand.
As an injury-prone player there was always a risk he’d be physically unable to perform when the lights came on—back spasms kept him out of Games 4, 5, and 6 in the first round—but Hill remains a barometer for Cleveland’s overall presentation.
“He’s been a big piece since we got him in the trade,” James said. “When he’s played well for us we’ve succeeded.”
On paper, Hill provides comfort in almost any situation. He’s a quality three-point shooter who can slide between three positions on the other end. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands, rarely turns it over, and possesses a realistic understanding of his own limitations. When he gets downhill in the pick-and-roll, forces help, and draws fouls (his current free-throw rate is nearly 10 points higher than his career playoff average), the Cavaliers climb to another level.
According to Cleaning the Glass, their offense averaged 120.6 points per 100 possessions with Hill during the regular season, an outrageous number that ranked in the 99th percentile. It’s a pattern that’s carried through the 32-year-old’s career: Hill’s teams are usually better when he’s on the floor, and they almost always have a positive point differential.
When he stunts and recovers to help, plugs gaps with his 6'9" wingspan, chases ball-handlers over picks to bother shots from behind, and generally offers the sort of defensive resistance Cleveland will need if they want to advance/pose any sort of threat against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, the Cavaliers reach another gear. When focused and healthy, he does things on that end very few can.
In the playoffs, Cleveland outscores opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions when Hill plays and are outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions when he does not—a 15.5 point differential that leads the team. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence when in Game 7 he came in and played the way he did against Indiana and then the way he played in the Toronto series,” Brad Stevens said. “He’s another guy that can really shoot the ball, play off the ball, but then he’s also a guy that can be the primary pick-and-roll ball handler, so that either Love can play with him in the pick and roll, which is a problem, or LeBron can be a setter, which is a problem.”
But perceived positive value and actual on-court consistency are obviously not mutually exclusive. Hill didn’t show up in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, tallying eight points, one assist, and zero steals in 61 total minutes. One month ago, he revealed that he was still figuring out his role moments before a playoff game was about to tip off.
He limped through the first few games of the first round before emerging in the second half of Game 7, then attempted 11 free throws in the final two quarters. It was a necessary breakout performance that boosted Hill’s confidence and allowed him to help annihilate the Toronto Raptors in Round 2, a series in which he finished +50 while shooting 53 percent from the floor. The first round was a physically-crippling stress test. Everything since has been (relatively) smooth.
“I kind of found that rhythm,” Hill tells VICE Sports when asked what the difference between the first two rounds was. “When to attack, when to be aggressive and shoot. When to pass and try to get other people involved.”
Cavaliers head coach Ty Lue agrees, citing Hill’s overall contributions in the second round as a major reason why Cleveland swept the No. 1 seed. “I think coming back and playing that second half of Game 7 he really played well and got us to that victory, so last series being able to guard Kyle Lowry and play with pace...he’s been great for us. Going forward we expect the same thing.”
In Cleveland’s critical Game 3, Hill scored 11 points in the first quarter. He attacked closeouts, punished help defenders who worried about LeBron's post-ups, and was as effective on defense as the Cavs need him to be, hustling for potential rebounds and staying in front of his man. It was a tone-setting performance that stretched Boston thin.
“He keeps you honest,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart told VICE Sports. “You can’t sleep on him. You’ve got to be conscious of where he’s at, and then he can also get to the rim. He’s athletic, quick enough to get by guys, and he makes the right play. So you’ve gotta really make him uncomfortable and don’t let him get in a rhythm because once he gets in a rhythm, those other guys get in rhythm.”
The Cavaliers are desperate for this version of Hill the rest of the way, and whether they actually get it could very well be the difference between admirable fight and franchise-altering disappointment.
Hill learned about the first mid-season trade of his 10-year career watching television, when he saw his name scroll across a ticker on the bottom of the screen. About one minute later he got a call from Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac letting him know the move was real.
For their participation in the three-team trade that also involved the Utah Jazz, Sacramento received two players who never had any place in their present or future (Iman Shumpert and Joe Johnson), a 2020 second-round pick via the Miami Heat, and $3.2 million in cash. Their rationale for the deal was twofold: getting off Hill’s contract and (to a much lesser extent) appeasing his desire to win.
Months before the deal went down, Divac established an open dialogue with Hill to let him know a trade that would make player and organization both happy may eventually be in the cards.
“I respect Vlade Divac to the fullest...He wanted to see me play for a championship-contending team,” Hill told VICE Sports. “He said there’s a chance that it could [happen] but there’s a small chance that it can’t. Just be ready when the opportunity comes and keep being a professional, and that’s what I did.”
Even though he says nothing about his in-game approach changed going from Sacramento to Cleveland, once Divac ended that phone call, Hill’s professional responsibility and personal stakes did a 180. Instead of tutoring De’Aaron Fox and sitting entire games for a team with little desire to win, he now had to orbit the closest thing NBA basketball has to a Sun in a championship-or-bust environment. That sort of adjustment—even for someone who spent three seasons surrounded by Hall of Famers in San Antonio before a few runs to the conference finals in Indiana—isn’t easy.
“I think at the end of the day it’s always tough to get someone at the trade deadline, to try and learn the system right away, and also learn a system and be a part of a system where you are looking to win every game,” James said. “You can’t really slow track it. You’ve got to try to fast track the process.”
As one way to increase his comfort, Lue has utilized a familiar set going back to Hill’s days with the Spurs: the famous hammer action that, in some form or another, has grafted itself into most playbooks around the league. In the example seen below, Hill drives towards the baseline off Kevin Love's pick and then finds Kyle Korver open in the opposite corner, thanks to a flare screen set by J.R. Smith. (It comes from a small sample size, but Cleveland’s shot frequency and accuracy on corner threes has noticeably improved with Hill on the court.)
“I think my role here is just to play, be aggressive,” Hill says. “Make the defense honor and respect me out there." When James isn’t on the floor, Hill’s threat as a spot-up shooter (on weak-side action that resembles how the Warriors attack) can be deadly. Here, the ball gets entered to Love at the elbow and the usually-disciplined Celtics dissolve trying to defend a split screen with Hill and Kyle Korver.
And then there’s more direct two-man chemistry between Love and Hill (Stevens called it “a bear”) that’s difficult to stop whether you switch, trap, drop, whatever.
Hill will make $19 million next season, but only $1 million of the $18 million due in 2019-20 is guaranteed, which infuses his contract with some trade value should the Cavs want to keep Love but feel the need to dangle the No. 8 pick for more immediate support. Hill’s salary will likely find its way into those negotiations.
But for the next week, at least, the team instead needs him to take advantage of every fissure created by LeBron and Love, while finding direct ways to make their lives as easy as possible. When he plays without hesitation, this team rolls with a fury few thought they'd be able to reach sans Kyrie Irving. Hill isn't that guy, of course. He won't average 25 points or regularly drill pull-up threes. But, all the same, his play is vital to Cleveland's success.
"Basketball is basketball no matter what court you’re on," he says. "No matter what situation we’re in—up, down—my job is to go out there, give 110 percent, and live with the outcome."