The Indiana Pacers fourth-quarter meltdowns have all started to blend together. The four telegraphed turnovers against the Boston Celtics are indistinguishable from the missed go-ahead free throws against the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors, the Jimmy Butler game-clinching alley-oop, the barrage of three-point shots made by the Houston Rockets in overtime, and the failure to cover Brook Lopez 1-on-1 or with double-teams. These plays don't live on in infamy as much as they've become one amorphous mass of frustrating flubs and mental miscues. And Indiana's end-of-game numbers match the blob of dismal memories misery for misery. They've lost 17 games in the final five minutes of games when they are ahead or tied and have dropped six of seven games that have been decided in overtime.
"They're all the same, we don't do enough," Paul George said of Indiana's growing collection of narrow losses after falling 101-94 to the Toronto Raptors. "Especially coming down to the end (of the season), games that we need, must wins, and we don't complete it."
It's like Groundhog's Day. As the clock winds down, the Pacers begin to battle more with themselves than opponents almost as if they are anticipating adding another loss to the list of games that got away.
Last night, another contest was on the brink of falling by the wayside. With under nine minutes to play, Indiana's 16-point third-quarter lead had fast turned into a two-point deficit. They were about to relive history. Then, Solomon Hill entered the game, and in a matter of approximately five minutes, he proved his worth by helping the Pacers let go of the past.
8:41 - The Pacers go small
J.B. Bickerstaff changed the tide of the game late in the third-quarter by surrounding James Harden with a cast of shooters and sprinters capable of stymieing Indiana's stagnating offense with switches. With Montiejunas and Howard on the bench, Houston's small-ball approach fueled a 16-3 run to pull them within three points of the Pacers, 67-70. Frank Vogel, in an attempt to slow down the game, countered by inserting Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill into the lineup, hoping to take advantage of mismatches on the glass and at the block. But rather than forcing Houston to play big, Indiana's various combinations of traditional frontcourts found themselves trailing, 87-85, when Solomon Hill came back into the game for C.J. Miles with 8:41 to play.
"We went small," Hill said of what the Pacers did to change the game. "We had a situation where they were small, we played a little big, and they went on a run. Then we just decided to go small to counteract what they were doing, switch up on some of their actions, and it ended up working for us."
With more space to operate, the immediate result was a game-tying basket by Monta Ellis off a dribble handoff.
6:27 - James Harden pays for helping off
After Paul George knocked down the technical free throw from Michael Beasley's defensive three-seconds violation, the Pacers in-bounded the ball to George Hill and got the exact mismatch they wanted when Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela switched the 1-5 pick-and-roll. Recognizing that Ian Mahinmi had the 6-foot-1 Beverley covering him on the block, Hill fed him the ball forcing James Harden to leave Solomon Hill on the perimeter to help. With two defenders suddenly digging the pass, Mahinmi misfired on the layup. Leaving the 25 percent three-point shooter alone on the perimeter seemed like a safe bet, until no one was there to block him out. The youngest Hill tipped in the missed shot to the pull the Pacers within two.
"Solo (Solomon Hill) is one of those guys that you like to have on your team," Ian Mahinmi explained after the game. "He's always going to get that steal or that rebound that you need in that crucial time."
4:23 - The defensive stand that turned the tide
James Harden was cooking in the second half, roasting nearly every Pacer in his path as he poured in 24 points on 66 percent shooting. After dropping Jordan Hill with a nasty crossover en route to the basket, he hit an easy three when Lavoy Allen hung back to cut off his driving lane. He baited both Paul George and Ian Mahinmi into fouling him behind the arc, and when George Hill managed to fight over the top of one of Houston's high picks the Rockets just re-screened resulting in another uncontested layup.
Left picking their poison, Paul George and Solomon Hill decided to switch on a ball-screen set by Trevor Ariza for James Harden with Indiana up 96-95 with under five minutes to play. Rather than allowing himself to be deceived by the former MVP candidate's patented change of direction, the elite defender used his physical strength to stand his ground. When Harden tried to cross him over, Hill knocked the ball loose and tied him up. What could have resulted in more freebies or an easy go-ahead basket, became a jump ball controlled by the Pacers. Houston never regained the lead.
4:01 - Solomon Hill finds Ian Mahinmi
Following the steal, the Rockets overloaded on Monta Ellis. With two defenders swarming Indiana's leading scorer in the second-half, Ellis made a bounce pass to a cutting Solomon Hill in the short corner, who lobbed the ball up to Ian Mahinmi for the easy dunk to extend the lead to 98-95.
"Solo (Solomon Hill) always brings a lot of energy," Mahinmi said of Hill. "Most of the time he makes the right plays, as far as when to shoot, when to pass."
3:38 - No second chances for Houston
Looking to replicate the formula that put them over the top against the Pacers back on January 10, Trevor Ariza drove to the basket and kicked it to a wide open Corey Brewer in the right corner. But unlike earlier this season, when the Rockets knocked down three shots from behind the arc in overtime to seal the game, Brewer came up empty and Solomon Hill crashed the glass.
3:28 - Hill finds Mahinmi, again
And for his final act of impact, Solomon Hill drove right around Patrick Beverley. When Clint Capela was forced to leave his man to contest the drive, Hill dropped the pass to a crashing Mahinmi for his second assist in less than a minute.
"It was just about making the right plays," Hill said of reading Houston's defense. "The way they play defense. They all carry over, they're all on the strong side. So, I knew if I got the chance to get in the middle, Ian (Mahinmi) would be open (and) Ian made the right plays."
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While Paul George and Monta Ellis combined for 48 points and Ian Mahinmi recorded a double-double playing opposite Dwight Howard, Solomon Hill recorded just two points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Yet, without his burst of energy, it is hard to envision the Pacers resisting their recurrent fourth-quarter demons to hold off Houston's late-game charge.
"We're playing for our lives now," Hill told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "If we would have given up this one tonight, we would have had to take a deep look at ourselves."
Perhaps the added wrinkle Hill brings to the team as a small-ball four against spread lineups has the Pacers taking a "deep look" back at their decision not to exercise his fourth-year option. An odd move, given that the $2.3 million worth of the final year of his rookie contract is basically pocket change under the rising salary cap for a stout wing defender. The player that led the Pacers in total minutes played last season still hasn't smoothed out his shooting stroke from behind the arc and his short stint at the Orlando Summer League was disappointing, but he still seems to have the confidence of his teammates.
"He's one of our most complete players on this team," Paul George told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth after defeating the Houston Rockets. "He gives everything every time he's on the floor. You know what you're going to get out of him."
If under 100 minutes of meaningless exhibition basketball helped persuade the Pacers to decline his option, maybe five key minutes in a game that could have pushed them outside of the playoff standings will be enough to persuade them to retain him.