Solomon Hill checked into the match with a little under three minutes left in the first quarter. By all accounts, he played solid defense over the next eight minutes. The rest of his game was unremarkable at best; he missed both of his three-point attempts and had a rebound offset by a foul. Which was probably why he didn’t see action until the final 24.4 seconds of what turned out to be a playoff-clinching victory against the Wizards; he was the 10th man for a reason, with his season norms of four and a half points, three rebounds, and one assist reflecting his importance — or lack thereof — to the Hawks.
Don’t tell that to Nate McMillan, though. As far as the Hawks head coach is concerned, Hill is “the player of the game for us… A lot of times, guys are sitting on the sidelines pouting because they’re not playing. You never know when your name might be called, but you’ve got to be ready to go.” And, considering what the journeyman did in the dying seconds of yesterday’s set-to, “ready to go” is an understatement. Sent to the free-throw line after corralling a short-range jumper from Raul Neto, he calmly sank both charities to all but cement the outcome.
McMillan was, no doubt, engaging in hyperbole. After all, 2020 All-Star Trae Young expectedly did the most damage, going for 33, eight, and nine in 37 minutes on the court. Yet, there’s no small sense of irony in noting that Hill replaced the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft with the Wizards down just one and still a lot of time on the clock. While the situational sidelining of the acknowledged leader of the red and yellow is nothing new, the bench tactician could have tapped anybody else.
True, things could just as easily have gone differently. But they didn’t, and there can be no arguing with the result. And, yes, Hill’s readiness reflects the mind-set of the Hawks, who have gone a heady 25 and 11 since McMillan occupied the hot seat vice the beleaguered Lloyd Pierce. Which explains why the real player of the game is everyone and no one, and why the postseason is now reality.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.