INDIANAPOLIS — George Hill took center stage with the biggest stars sitting.
Hill finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, and capped the first triple-double of his career with three free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the Indiana Pacers’ 93-86 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night.
With LeBron James out because of a sore back, Kyrie Irving back in Cleveland with an injured left shoulder and Paul George on the bench with a broken right leg, Hill delivered one of his most memorable performances.
"The best part is it’s an answer to some of the critics he had at the end of last season," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He can play off the basketball and now, this year, you’re seeing what he can do with the ball in his hands."
Of course, those same critics may contend this milestone game came against a team nowhere close to full strength.
Irving’s absence was expected. He had been listed as doubtful after hurting his left shoulder Thursday night.
James’ absence was a surprise.
Ninety minutes before tip-off, coach David Blatt told reporters he was giving the four-time MVP a night off because of a sore back. James has missed 11 games this season, nine because of a bad back. He didn’t even sit on the bench with his teammates.
"As you saw, he experienced some soreness last night during the game," Blatt said, explaining he was hopeful of having his top two players back Sunday. "I decided to rest him."
Hill and his teammates took full advantage of the opportunity.
Indiana has won seven of nine, a stretch that includes two wins over Cleveland and a victory over Western Conference-leading Golden State, to improve its hopes for a playoff berth.
Rodney Stuckey scored 19 points. The Pacers held the usually high-scoring Cavaliers to 35.9 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from 3-point range on a night Vogel passed Larry Brown for the most wins in the franchise’s NBA history. Vogel now has 191 wins with Indiana.
But the Pacers wanted Hill to savor his milestone moment.
"Toward the last timeout, my teammates told me ‘one more rebound’ and it was like ‘for what?’ He said a triple-double," Hill said. "They said they were going to box out, and let me go get the rebound so I said ‘Thank y’all.’"
J.R. Smith finished with 21 points, Kevin Love had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Matthew Dellavedova added 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a rare start for the Cavs.
"A game like tonight, missing Kyrie and missing LeBron, we needed to make open shots over the top because we didn’t have the normal kind of penetration," Blatt said. "We needed to make some of those shots from a distance and we didn’t."
Indiana made sure they couldn’t.
After giving up the first seven points and falling into a 21-8 hold less than seven minutes into the game, Indiana buckled down and fought back to take a 51-45 halftime lead. The Pacers extended the margin to 74-59 with 2:28 left in the third, then allowed Cleveland to creep back within 76-70 midway through the fourth.
Indiana answered that challenge with a 9-0 run. The Cavs rallied with 11 straight points to close to 85-81 with 1:35 to go, but Stuckey hit a 3-pointer and Hill made the free throws to wrap it up.
"I’ll take it because the most important thing is we won the game," Hill said.
Cavaliers: Friday night marked the first time the Cavaliers played without Irving and James since Jan. 5 at Philadelphia. The two All-Stars average a combined 41.7 points and 12.5 assists. Cleveland lost both games.
Pacers: George has returned to practice, but he’s still not suiting up for Indiana. The two-time All-Star sat on the Pacers bench dressed in a brown sport coat and dark slacks. He’s hoping to make his season debut in mid-March, less than eight months after having surgery to repair his broken right leg.
Cleveland’s trips have been miserable over the past five years. The Cavs have lost 10 straight regular-season games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since their last win, Jan. 29, 2010. And this trip was even worse. A mechanical problem kept the team plane on the runway for two hours Thursday night. Eventually, they got off the plane and flew to Indy on Friday morning.