Commentary

With Hill out, Pacers can't close

Originally Published: May 17, 2013
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- George Hill had a headache at the Indiana Pacers shootaround Thursday morning. When some aspirin didn't get rid of it, his team did absolutely the correct and rule-mandated thing, even though it may have put them in some trouble in their playoff series with the New York Knicks.

Hill took an elbow from Tyson Chandler in the Pacers' Game 4 victory Tuesday night. It was in the first quarter, away from the ball and there was no foul called. Hill fell down, got up and finished off the finest playoff game of his career over the next two hours, scoring 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting with four assists.

He accepted congratulations from fans and teammates and then went to the locker room and took a shower. With a big smile on his face he went to the postgame interview podium, where he sat under bright lights and talked about his big game as pundits judged his clothes in one of the most affirming moments an NBA player can have these days.

On Wednesday, he drove to the airport and flew to New York. And then on Thursday, after the headache wouldn't go away, he was diagnosed with a concussion and was immediately put into the league's relatively new concussion protocol.

[+] EnlargeRaymond Felton
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Pacers' replacements at point guard couldn't get the job done at the Garden in Game 5.

The Pacers aren't sure exactly when Hill suffered the concussion, though the Chandler elbow is a decent guess. But now they've got to put his health ahead of their playoff situation, and not by choice.

Who knows how many times in years past players who were in Hill's position were allowed, or perhaps even encouraged, to play in playoff games. The playoffs are the tape-it-up-and-play days, when fans can often judge a player's toughness on whether he'll fight through an injury.

But the new rules, at least in part, helped protect Hill even if his absence could turn out to be a major development in this ugly but tight series.

There's now a good chance that Hill will be out the rest of this series because the Pacers did what was right. The team is calling him day-to-day, but the NBA's concussion protocol is very specific and cannot be rushed. It can take days if not weeks to be cleared, no matter the severity of the symptoms. And the next playoff game is in less than two days.

Not having Hill -- who spent the game in a darkened training room -- hurt the Pacers on Thursday. Already a fragile offensive team, they wheezed without their starting point guard. They scored just 34 points in the first half as backup D.J. Augustin, who learned he was making his first career playoff start on the team bus on the way to Madison Square Garden, took over.

The Pacers committed 19 turnovers, which is their Achilles' heel even when Hill is healthy, and shot just 36 percent as the Knicks extended the best-seven series with a 85-75 win.

"We've got plenty to beat the Knicks, with or without George Hill," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, refusing to use the surprising turn of events as an excuse. "The guys in uniform have got to play better."

During a playoff game two years ago, the Pacers were questioned when Tyler Hansbrough returned to a playoff game against the Chicago Bulls after he appeared to be knocked out cold by a Kurt Thomas elbow and subsequent collision with a teammates' knee. Hansbrough appeared to nearly collapse in the tunnel on his way to the locker room.

But he was in the middle of a fabulous game and clearly wanted to return. He didn't show any ill effects and scored 22 points in one of his best games of his career.

Had the concussion protocol been in effect at the time -- it was started the next season, and included preseason baseline testing for every player to help better diagnose a concussion -- it might've been a different story.

The Knicks benefitted from a strong game from Carmelo Anthony, who had 28 points, and a key contribution from Chris Copeland, who had 13, off the bench Thursday. The Pacers were also mired in foul trouble to Roy Hibbert and Paul George. And they missed 14 free throws, which turned out to be a rather big deal.

All of these were factors in the turnaround from Games 3 and 4. But the Hill matter is not something to be dismissed. The Pacers have a thin bench and had to use George and Lance Stephensen out of position at point guard.

Despite all that, it was a four-point game with six minutes to play. The Pacers are headed home for Game 6, thinking they'd missed an opportunity.

"We're prepared to play without George," Vogel said. "It had nothing to do with when we found out we didn't have George or not having George."

Earlier this season, the Dallas Mavericks' Chris Kaman ripped the NBA's concussion protocol when it delayed his return to action.

"The stupidest test ever," Kaman called it in February. "For so many years in the NBA, they never had to do that stuff and now they come up with all that concussion protocol crap."

Kaman was on the wrong side of history on this one and might have been on the wrong side of his health. He experienced recurring headaches and ended up missing nearly a month. The protocol protected him.

NBA players and teams are still coming to grips with this new normal. Hill's situation portends to be a high-profile test of the system because of the timing and the stakes.

This just isn't as simple as getting treatment and playing through it. This is an evolution in athletics that, in the near-term, hurts the Pacers.

"I just hope he bounces back," the Pacers' David West said. "He's one of our main guys, but we have to have the attitude of next man up."