George Hill reportedly spent part of Game 5 in a darkened bathroom, which means he did not have to watch most of the game between his Pacers and the Knicks, which means he might have actually gotten off easier than the rest of us.
All joking aside, Hill would much rather have been on the court than spend the latest edition of this Eastern Conference slugfest perched on a porcelain throne. Post-concussion symptoms forced him to retreat to the soothing blackness of the bathroom on Thursday, though, and his status for the rest of the series throws everything into flux.
The Pacers were rolling along through the first four games against the Knicks, winning in their own ugly, yet convincing, fashion three times. When Tyson Chandler delivered a hard screen to Hill in Game 4 on Tuesday, the Pacers point guard seemed jarred, but nothing more. Hill canned a game-high 26 points in that game, the Pacers took a 3-1 series lead and Indiana looked to be headed to its first conference finals since 2004.
Sometime on Wednesday, though, Hill apparently began to experience headaches and dizziness. The team’s athletic trainer held him out of Game 5 on Thursday, and the importance of this one-time role player out of IUPUI suddenly came into stark focus. Without Hill, the Pacers struggled to do things as simple as make a post-entry pass and Raymond Felton, whom Hill had helped bottle up for the most part, reverted to his pick-and-roll mastery against the outmatched D.J. Augustin and Lance Stephenson.
Hill’s situation is not just uncharted territory for the Pacers. It is uncharted territory for the NBA. Since the league instituted its current concussion policy prior to last season, there have been numerous instances in which the policy has been used. Celtics swingman Mickael Pietrus, for one, had a long, hard recovery back from a concussion after falling onto his neck in Philadelphia.
This is a unique situation, however. A relatively high-profile player’s head injury will affect how his team needs to gameplan for a do-or-die playoff series. No one is going to tell Hill to sniff some smelling salts and get back in the game, nor should they. But there is no real, time-tested plan in place for the Pacers here. How they proceed will influence how teams treat concussions in the playoffs in the future, for good or ill.
Hopefully, no one is naïve enough to believe this is the first time an NBA player has suffered a concussion in the playoffs. This is simply the first time in this new environment, where head injuries get more scrutiny in all sports, that an apparent concussion could cause an NBA player to miss playoff games. In announcing its new policy in 2011, the NBA itself allowed that the process for a player getting cleared to play after a concussion “will likely take at least several days, if not weeks.” Of course, that is a problem in the playoffs, when a couple of weeks constitute an entire series.
Players’ reactions to the concussion tests have been mixed, mostly because athletes do not like to be told they cannot play. After the cognitive tests, players need to clear a series of physical exertion tests to assure concussion symptoms do not return after athletic activity. Hill’s life right now probably consists of a lot of sitting in dark rooms and riding a stationary bike.
Hill may not enjoy that life, particularly if his team continues to crumble in his absence. But it is hard to feel too badly for him. Like it or not, this is best for his long-term health, and the NBA should be commended for making this an institutional focus after years of treating head injuries with a shrug and orders to rub some dirt on it.
In the meantime, Pacers coach Frank Vogel has his own headaches, like teaching Gerald Green to make a post-entry pass.
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