The pre-game chat with Frank Vogel once again drifted into the topic of the "good problem" he has coaching the Pacers.
He has too much depth, if that's possible. Too many players who can play. Veterans who have fallen out of the playing rotation and a bench that extends all the way to Fort Wayne, where owner Herb Simon had to buy a Development League team to assure the younger players would get some game minutes.
The good problem saved the Pacers from a bad headache in their 93-87 victory over Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday, when the reserves combined to make up for the mysterious play of Paul George, who struggled for the 11th consecutive game since dropping 48 points on Utah in Salt Lake City on Dec. 5.
More on that as you scroll down. The primary emphasis of the latest Pacers victory, which ended Atlanta's six-game win streak, should be on the unexpected contributions from Solomon Hill, who had fallen out of favor, and Ian Mahinmi, who has fallen into favor.
C.J. Miles was a late scratch from Monday's game because of a sore lower back. That raised expectations for more playing time for promising 21-year-old Glenn Robinson III, whom Vogel keeps saying is destined greater opportunity. Instead, the minutes went to Hill, a starter in 78 games last season but a participant in just 13 of the season's first 29 games, with most of those minutes coming in garbage time.
Playing a season-high 25 minutes, 51 seconds, Hill finished with 10 points – eight in the fourth quarter, when Vogel simply couldn't afford to take him out. He made even greater contributions at the defensive end, sparking a rally from a 10-point first-quarter deficit, when the Hawks offense was getting whatever shot it wanted.
He was typical of another strong contribution from the reserves, who scored 35 points on 16-of-30 shooting and initiated the comeback from a 10-point deficit.
Hill, more than anyone, set the proper tone for the game by ramping up the defense and continually attacking the basket. Four of his field goals were dunks or layups, and the fifth was described on the play-by-play sheet as a running five-foot jump shot.
Vogel told Hill to be ready when it was learned Miles would not play, so his opportunity didn't come nearly as big a surprise to him as it did to outsiders.
"When I first got out there, I was trying not to make mistakes," he said. "I had to remind myself to just play my game. I had shots go in and out, but that didn't stop me from being aggressive."
Hill is the one Pacers player who could be excused for having a sour attitude, given the fact he was the only member of the Blue & Gold to play in all 82 games last season and has strong motivation to re-establish himself because he's in the final year of his contract. His attitude has been nothing short of exemplary, however, because he knows the potential cost of a bad one.
"I have to keep being upbeat," he said. "If I was down in the gutter and C.J. went out and I was thrown out there and I'm not ready, it's just going to show why I shouldn't be playing. It's days like this that show my hard work is paying off."
Hill has been the subject of a trade rumor or two, but says he's not looking for an exit to a better opportunity for playing time.
"I'm an Indiana Pacer," he said. "They drafted me. I'd definitely love to be here and be part of something great with this team. We have the makings of a special team. We have the potential to be one of the top two teams in the East."
If the Pacers are to be special they'll need strong play from Mahinmi, whose NBA career is getting a second wind in its ninth season. Mahinmi finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, and made three of the game's biggest plays in the final minute, when the Pacers were protecting a three-point lead. He collected a steal from Jeff Teague while combining on a double-team with George Hill, and followed with a long rebound of Solomon Hill's missed 3-pointer. After a timeout, he tipped in Monta Ellis' missed 3-pointer, opening a five-point lead and clinching the win with 16.3 seconds left.
Mahinmi played all but 12 seconds of the final 6 minutes, 20 seconds, a luxury Vogel might not have had before Mahinmi overcame his horrifically foul foul shooting. He hit 21 percent over the first 13 games, but had hit 69 percent in the 15 games before Monday. He was 3-of-5 against the Hawks.
He would have been safe to play in the final two minutes because of the added penalty attached to intentional fouls, but likely would not have played before then, if at all, had the Hawks employed a Hack-a-Ian strategy as other teams had been doing.
"For me that's such a big step to be able to play down the stretch," he said. "I'm in the game, that's what I always wanted, making plays – making the right plays. Sometimes you're going to make the wrong play, but being in there at the end of the game, that's really good for my confidence.
"I feel like we're jelling, that the chemistry is only going to get better. There's so much room for improvement, this is an exciting part of the process. I feel like I'm playing well as a starting center, but I can do so much more. I'm going to keep working hard and see where it takes me."
Ellis also will factor into any improvement the Pacers can make. He was described as questionable for Monday's game because of a sore knee, but played – and played better than any of his teammates. He finished with a season-high 26 points, and played a major role in shutting down Atlanta's backcourt. Teague, Kyle Korver and Dennis Schroder combined to hit just 6-of-26 shots.
Ellis, who has scored more than 20 points in three consecutive games for the first time all season, had an MRI a week ago to take a closer at his sore right knee, which underwent surgery last summer. It revealed a cyst had burst, but no threats of long-term issues.
"One of those things that's going to take some time," he said. "It's definitely going to get better. Nothing to worry about."
The biggest worry at the moment for the Pacers is the recent play of George. He hit just 3-of-14 shots on Monday. He had hit 5-of-19 in last week's loss to Sacramento, and 1-of-14 in the previous loss to San Antonio. He's failed to hit half of his field goal attempts in the 11 games since his outburst at Utah, and his shooting percentage is hovering around 30 percent during that stretch.
He blames a variety of factors, primarily fatigue from playing so many minutes after sitting out all but the final six games last season after recovering from a broken leg.
"This is the most games I've played in a long time," he said. "A lot of my shots are short. I think my legs and my body are getting conditioned (the season's grind).
"That's one factor. Also, getting a hot start, teams are definitely getting dialed into me now. I'm seeing more double teams, more helps, bigs are coming out higher. They're not letting me get comfortable in my spots. It's something I've got to work through. Hopefully January I'll come up with Plan B."
Consistent play from a deep bench. Continued improvement from Mahinmi. A healthy Ellis. A return to form from George. The Pacers will need all of those factors to come together to become the team they think they can be.
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