GRANT HILL MAKES HIS CLIPPERS DEBUT
LOS ANGELES – Grant Hill has made 5,476 free throws in his storied career. On Saturday he converted his first as a member of the Clippers.
Hill, who missed the first 36 games of the season with a bone bruise in his right knee, made his regular-season debut in the Clippers’ 104-101 loss to the Orlando Magic.
He played 6:25, scoring two points on a pair of free throws and adding two defensive rebounds.
“It felt good,” said Hill, who addressed the media in the press conference room next to the Clippers locker room wearing a three-piece gray suit. “Obviously, [it is] disappointing we lost, so it’s a bit bittersweet. It was definitely good to get out there and get to play.”
Public address announcer Eric Smith emphasized Hill’s name when the veteran forward entered the game for the first time to start the fourth quarter, drawing perhaps the loudest ovation of the afternoon from a sold-out Staples Center.
Hill admitted that despite playing in his 998th career game, he still had butterflies in his stomach before leaving the house. He said the nervousness intensified when Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro told him he was joining Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Eric Bledsoe on the court.
“When Vinny called my number I was really nervous,” Hill said. “I think that’s part of it. I think you’re always a little nervous, the butterflies. I think you settle down and get into a routine. This is still kind of new, getting out there and playing with this team and so on.”
It was less about nervousness than excitement for point guard Chris Paul, who finally got to play alongside the seven-time All-Star. “[I was] excited,” Paul said. “I’ve been playing one-on-one with Grant a lot in practice and stuff like that. Those shots that fell a little bit short tonight, he had made them on me every other day in practice. I’m not worried about [Grant] at home.”
Hill’s first shot came with 10:55 left in the quarter as he dribbled into a mid-range jumper from the free throw line. He missed that one and two others that fell short. He earned his two free throws by drawing contact with Josh McRoberts after ball-faking a corner 3-pointer and driving along the right baseline.
It was a moment that, Hill, 40, was not sure would come Saturday.
After practicing earlier in the week for the first time since October, Hill was inactive Wednesday against Dallas. The Clippers practiced again Friday with Hill going full-speed for the third consecutive workout. He spent the first 36 minutes against Orlando, one of his former teams, sitting on a stack of towels at the end of the bench between Ryan Hollins and Trey Thompkins as well as riding a stationary bike in the team’s tunnel.
Despite being active, Hill said he was still unsure if Del Negro would opt to slot him into a lineup that had won 28 of its first 36 games without him, especially with Orlando within eight points entering the fourth period.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to get to play,” Hill said. “I think the team has a great rhythm and great flow and the first half [I did not play]. And as we ended the third, it was still a close game. Certainly, winning is a priority and I get that and understand that. It wasn’t sort of agreed upon. I think [Del Negro] was sort of going by feel.”
Afterwards Del Negro said he plans to work Hill in as he can, adding, “It was good to see Grant out there and he’s worked hard to get back to this point. He’s got to get in game condition and get some rust off, but he’s such a smart player. He gives us good versatility out there.”
The versatility is expected to benefit the Clippers bench. Hill adds another shooter, decision-maker and defender alongside Barnes and Odom in the frontcourt. For now, though, Hill is just glad to feel healthy.
“The most important thing is I felt good,” Hill said. “My knee felt good. My legs were a little heavy. But as long as you put together consecutive days and consecutive weeks of good health, the basketball and the timing and all that comes.
“I passed a test today. It wasn’t great, but at least I passed.”