AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When it appeared the Lakers could jeopardize their chances at collecting a rare victory, the team relied on a key player to close out the game they wanted.
His name was not Kobe Bryant.
His name was Jordan Hill, whose surprisingly consistent mid-range jumper became the Lakers’ key weapon in securing a 106-96 victory on Tuesday over the Detroit Pistons at the Palace. Hill’s team-leading 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 13 rebounds also featured a fourth-quarter stretch where he scored eight consecutive points at the perfect time.
The Lakers’ second unit nearly squandered a 21-point lead, prompting coach Byron Scott to reinsert his starters to ensure a dwindling 88-78 cushion with 6:39 remaining would not decrease even more. During that stretch, Hill sank two jumpers, converted on a layup and connected on a left hook shot. And all that body work left the Lakers’ usual closer handing out an assist.
“Jordan worked extremely hard this summer on his mid-range jumper at the point where he’s one of the best big shooters in the league,” Bryant said. “He makes it tough for defenses to lock in. That mid-range jumper for him is dead eye.”
Yet, Hill admits that defenders “probably” still don’t believe he can make shots with dependable accuracy. After all, Hill may have averaged a career-high 14 points, but he only has only shot 33-of-85 on mid-range jumpers (38.8 percent). But he still looks more polished than in the previous two seasons when his presence solely relied on scoring off of tip-ins and rebounding.
“I just needed the minutes,” said Hill, whom the Lakers resigned this offseason to a two-year deal worth $18 million. “Once I got the minutes, I knew I could do what I can do.”
Hill actually received that last season, posting career-highs in points (9.7), shooting percentage (54.9 percent), rebounds (7.4) and minutes played (20.8). But Hill has admitted he encountered philosophical clashes with former Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. A discrepancy emerged between the 40 games Hill averaged at least 20 minutes per game and the 20 games in which he averaged 15 minutes or fewer.
D’Antoni also encouraged Hill to add mid-range jump shooting to his game. But Hill argued D’Antoni kept him on a short leash when he failed to fill that job description.
“Last year under D’Antoni, I was doing the things he wanted me to do just so I could get the minutes I was getting,” Hill said. “I couldn’t do what I was capable of doing. But this year is a different story. I’m out there playing my game.”
That doesn’t mean Lakers coach Byron Scott gives Hill free reign. Scott pointed out how Pistons forward Andre Drummond recorded six of his seven offensive rebounds over Hill in the first half. But Scott also added that Hill “played great.”
The Lakers needed it.
After all, Bryant’s triple double came on 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting, 13 assists and 10 turnovers after missing morning shootaround because of fatigue catching up to the Lakers’ 36-year-old star. So with the Lakers’ starters coming in to secure the victory, Hill took on the challenge by closing out.
“Kobe was a great facilitator tonight so we just had to knock down shots, Hill said. “I wanted to help him out and do the little things to help him win.”
And once Hill successfully closed out a Lakers victory, Bryant provided a closing argument on what to expect from Hill moving forward.
“We should just get used to the fact,” Bryant said, “that he’s going to have these performances consistently,”
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