It was back when Hill and George were teammates on the Indiana Pacers. As both a self-identified “fix it” guy and an animal lover, Hill just had to jump in after the pooch when he saw it struggling to keep its head above water.
“I’m just mad the water was so damn cold,” Hill said.
Hill approaches his role on the Milwaukee Bucks much the way he did in saving the struggling pup: He is ready when called upon and prides himself on his unselfishness. Along with being a proven shooter, those traits made him well-suited for the Milwaukee system.
The Bucks have touted their depth all season, and Hill, along with the rest of the team’s “Bench Mob,” often has been the difference-maker in the playoffs too. Entering the Eastern Conference finals, the Milwaukee bench ranked third leaguewide in points per game, third in field goal percentage, first in 3-point attempts and second in assists.
In a 125-103 Game 2 victory against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night, the Bucks’ bench outscored the Raptors’ backups 54-39. Milwaukee scored its most points in the first half of a playoff game (64) in the past 20 seasons, and the Bucks head to Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena for Game 3 on Sunday with a commanding 2-0 series lead.
“They can compete against other team’s starters,” Bucks starting forward Khris Middleton said of Milwaukee’s bench.
It’s not the first time this postseason that Milwaukee’s bench players have been heavy contributors. The Bucks owed their Game 3 win at the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals to a third-quarter run by the bench; Hill outscored Boston’s reserves 21-16 by himself for the game.
But in the conference finals, the disparity between the two teams’ depth has been apparent. Toronto’s starting lineup has struggled to find chemistry, and Kawhi Leonard didn’t get much help in Game 2, as only two other Raptors finished in double figures. It wasn’t much better for Toronto in Game 1, as only three Raptors finished in double figures — and Milwaukee reserve guard Malcolm Brogdon outscored the visiting team’s bench 15-12.
Toronto’s depth was further stretched on Friday because starting center Marc Gasol, who has been a matchup target for the Bucks, scored only two points in 19 minutes on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. Pascal Siakam, officially a finalist for this season’s Most Improved Player award, fouled out in 26 minutes with eight points and was overpowered by Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Raptors are relying on Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell to play strong rotation minutes in this series; forward OG Anunoby is still not close to playing because of an emergency appendectomy just before the start of the postseason. VanVleet has struggled significantly, shooting only 28.4 percent from the field in the postseason, and Ibaka is the only reserve averaging more than 20 minutes in the playoffs. Powell had a strong Game 2 (14 points, 6 of 9 field goals), but prior to Friday, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse hadn’t played him more than 20 minutes since the first round against the Orlando Magic.
“I thought their bench guys came in and really … when we kind of clawed back from the bad start, I think we got to 14-9 right away, then those guys came in and took off,” Nurse said of Milwaukee’s reserves.
Mike Budenholzer breaks down how Giannis Antetokounmpo’s effort fueled the Bucks’ team performance in a Game 2 rout of Raptors.
The Milwaukee bench, in contrast, bounced back from a subpar performance (aside from Brogdon) in Game 1. After Wednesday’s game, Hill (0-for-6 shooting in Game 1) sat in front of his locker and explained that it had been a good win despite the Bench Mob struggling. From the adjacent locker, wing Pat Connaughton piped up.
“We kind of stunk, but Malcolm Brogdon picked up our average,” Connaughton said, cracking a smile.
In Game 2, the Milwaukee bench bounced back, and Brogdon, who scored 14 points and made three 3-pointers, again made a big impact to support Antetokounmpo’s team-high 30 points. Brogdon wasn’t alone.
At one point, reserve forward Ersan Ilyasova nailed a deep 3-pointer and the crowd began chanting his name. Usually, that honor is reserved for Antetokounmpo or Middleton.
Hill scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds on Friday, and Ilyasova finished with 17 points and a game-best plus-minus of plus-22. The duo earned a trip to the postgame podium alongside Antetokounmpo.
Six Bucks players finished in double figures in Game 2, and they made up for meager performances from Game 1 star Brook Lopez (six points, 1-of-7 shooting) and point guard Eric Bledsoe (eight points, 3-of-10 shooting).
Those big contributions allowed Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to play Antetokounmpo just 34 minutes. The Raptors’ Leonard and Kyle Lowry each played at least 38 minutes, despite Toronto pulling its starters late in the game. Milwaukee has not only been better than Toronto so far in this series, but its key players are staying fresher, thanks to its confident second unit.
“Well, the thing is, that’s the beauty about our team,” Ilyasova said. “Everybody wants to look at the bench. We have a deep bench, and the whole season we rely on each other. Obviously, in this game, we kind of learned a lesson from Game 1 and everybody just from the gates was ready, and especially the bench.
“I think the starting five set the tone, and we have to just do the same thing.”