Solomon Hill was born in Chicago, but attended junior high and high school in Los Angeles during the peak years of Kobe Bryant's career with the Lakers. He admired him, of course, but didn't idolize him. Didn't wear his jersey. Didn't have a poster of him on his bedroom wall. Truth be told, Vince Carter was his favorite player.
That's why Hill approached his task of defending Bryant in Monday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as solemnly and resolutely as he did. He didn't take it as an honor to be on the same slab of hardwood, but he didn't back down. He wasn't intimidated, but he kept his mouth shut, too.
The result worked out well for the Pacers, who broke an eight-game losing streak with a 110-91 victory over the Lakers. Bryant got off 26 shots, but hit only eight on his way to 21 points in 30 minutes. Fourteen of those came in the third quarter, after the Pacers had taken a 33-point halftime lead.
No doubt, defending Bryant isn't the tortuous, grinding task it was, back in the days when he was capable of scoring 81 points. He's shooting like a 36-year-old these days – 38 percent from the field and 27 percent from the 3-point line. But he's still a threat. Already this season, he's scored 44 points in three quarters against Golden State, had a 19-point quarter in another game against the Warriors, and had games of 39 and 31 (in 28 minutes) against Phoenix.
“The reason his percentages are the way they are is the team he's on,” Hill said. “If he feels like his shot is the best shot available at all times, it's a dangerous task (defending him). At any moment, Kobe could go for 60. I just wanted to make sure it wasn't on me.”
The master offered praise afterward.
“I thought he competed hard,” Bryant said. “He moved his feet well and was physical in stretches, and I think he did a good job.”
Of all the numbers on Bryant's stat line, the one Hill liked best was 3. That was the number of Bryant's free throw attempts, all in the third quarter. It was significant in that it showed Hill and his teammates remained fundamental in their defensive approach.
“He tried to stay down on the shot fake, which he did a really good job of,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our bigs were active in helping and we tried to make everything difficult and everything contested and not foul him when he was in the paint.”
Bryant got two of his foul shots in the third quarter on a foul by Hill, and another to complete a three-point play after driving baseline and drawing a foul from David West. Otherwise, Hill kept a hand in his face and more often than not kept him out of the foul lane.
“The free throws were the main thing,” he said. “He's going to get his shots, regardless. To limit him in the first half to zero free throw attempts was the main thing. You keep a scorer like that off the free throw line, it drastically changes the game, especially if they're not hitting (field goals).”
Hill also had a hand in frustrating Bryant. He blocked his shot midway through the third period. Shortly thereafter, after being called for a foul, Bryant was hit with a technical foul. Hill also challenged Bryant offensively. A few minutes after the technical foul, when Bryant got into him on the perimeter, Hill drove at him, drew his fourth foul, and hit both free throws.
Hill might have been aggressive, but he wasn't dumb. He didn't say a word to him throughout the game.
“I would never talk to Kobe,” he said. “You don't want to give him anything to get going. That could be the one difference. You say something to him, he takes it the wrong way, and it's a whole different Kobe. It's bad enough as it is. You don't want to give a guy like that any ammunition.”
The Lakers were playing their third road game in four nights, so Hill had help from the schedule in defending Bryant. Still, Bryant showed the tenacity that has fueled his career. He chased after a loose ball in the third quarter, colliding with the scorer's table. He complained to a referee during a timeout in the fourth period, when the Lakers' cause was hopeless. He encouraged his teammates from the bench. And he talked like an elder statesman afterward.
“That's the competitiveness of Kobe Bryant,” he said. “You could turn the scoreboard off and he's going to play the same way every time. That's one thing you have to respect about a guy like that. He still brings it and he expects his team to bring it. They followed him in that second half. You could see the energy he was giving everybody.”