PHOENIX – When the Suns signed Grant Hill to a one-year deal with an option two seasons ago, they knew they were getting an injury-plagued former star who had only twice played more than 30 games this decade.
At the time, the best-case scenario involved Hill playing something like 60 games a year and being an asset in the playoffs.
The Suns knew they were getting a solid veteran, a solid citizen and a player who does everything well on the basketball court, but nobody could have envisioned Hill playing all 82 games for the first time in his career this season after logging 70 last year.
Grant Hill being the ironman of the Phoenix Suns, the only Sun to play in all 82, is only one of many strange twists in the 2008-09 season, and you certainly can’t blame him that Phoenix’s season ended Wednesday night.
“Grant has been incredible this season,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “Very inspirational for a guy to go through so many things as he has throughout his career, especially with the injuries, to be (36) years old, play all 82 games and play all 82 games at an incredibly high level and do so many different things for our team, be so consistent, be such a good teammate, score, rebound, assist, defend. It’s really a tribute to what type of person he is and what type of player he is.”
The Suns gave the crowd a chance to recognize Hill for the accomplishment late in the second quarter of their 117-113 victory over the Warriors and staff members brought in cupcakes organized in the shape of “82” before the game.
With the back luck Hill has drawn in his career, I half expected him to sprain his ankle in pregame warmups or something like that. That’s just the kind of career he’s had.
“It means a lot,” Hill said after becoming the first player his age to play all 82 in five years. “It is a good thing to be proud of, just considering everything.”
Hill feels he got better throughout the year, enjoying a second wind that he hasn’t had to call upon since his early years in Detroit.
The stats bear that out, as Hill averaged 14.1 ppg in March and 16.8 ppg in April – his best two scoring months of the year and a stark contrast to his 7.9 ppg November.
If you don’t venture over to the shooting percentage column of the stat sheet, you could argue that Hill played his best all-around game of the season Wednesday night.
The vet scored a season-high-tying 27 points, pulled down 10 boards, dished five assists and recorded four steals, putting up his second game of at least 23-10-5 in three weeks after not doing that even once in nine years.
As for that shooting percentage thing, General Manager Steve Kerr said it best as he was leaving the podium in the interview room as Hill arrived.
“I think Kobe Hill is here,” Kerr said. “7-for-25, are you kidding me?”
As Shaq entered the room after Hill, he joyously proclaimed, “7-for-25, great numbers,” before bantering with Hill about having a certain former teammate who used to score 27 points while taking 25 field goals and 16 free throws to boot as Hill did Wednesday night.
Hill putting up such a stat line in his 82nd game of a season probably would have been an even bigger shock to Suns management two years ago than the team falling to the ranks of the lottery.
Head coach Alvin Gentry credited the Phoenix medical staff for such a resurgence, especially in light of the fact Shaq played in his 75th game of the season on Wednesday night and there hasn’t been any talk of resting the Shaqtus on back-to-backs in months.
Shaq has only once played this many games since his first three seasons in the league, and he had hit the 70-game mark only three times since those first three seasons.
The Suns’ other veteran, Nash, also made a little history by finishing off his third season with 50 percent field-goal shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting and 90 percent free-throw shooting, making him the only player to pull off that feat after joining Larry Bird as the only player to do it more than once last season.
Although only one player in NBA history – and a damn good one at that – has pulled this off twice, Nash is a missed free throw two years ago from having done it four years in a row.
Nash has also now led the NBA’s most efficient offense for eight consecutive seasons after the Suns led the league in that department once again by averaging 111.2 points per 100 possessions.
The Suns have finished as the league’s top shooting team for the fourth straight year after shooting 50.4 percent, the highest in the NBA since 1996-97 (Utah) and the highest in franchise history since the 1983-84 Suns hit 50.9 percent of their shots.
Phoenix also became the first team since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 Bulls to shoot at least 50 percent in consecutive seasons, and the point guard may have had a little to do with that.
I hope you don’t think there’s any debate on whether or not this guy is a Hall of Famer.
As for the actual game, the Suns fought back from an early 16-point deficit to match their biggest comeback of the year, with the other coming on Nov. 26 in Oklahoma City.
But unlike that dramatic finish, the Suns made this one all back by going on a 30-14 tear in the middle of the second quarter and cruised from there.
I was disappointed once again that all the starters and LB were the only players to reach double figures and that every starter besides J-Rich played at least 30 minutes, while J-Rich and LB combined soaked up all the two-guard minutes.
We saw more solid play from Robin Lopez with seven points and seven boards (four offensive) and even a flash of a mean streak when he needed to be separated from Anthony Randolph, but it would have been nice to see the rooks get a little more burn.
I know what guys like Nash, Shaq and Hill can do in crunch time of close games. They have closed out infinitely more important games than the one on Wednesday night.
I want to see what Lopez and Dragic can do, and in a meaningless game against a team missing almost all of its key guys I don’t know why the Suns didn’t let the kids try to pull one out.
Gentry talked about “ending the season on a good note,” but the best note tonight could have possibly ended on would have involved Lopez and Dragic closing out their very first crunch time victory.