Hill’s shutdown skills await toughest test yet

Over the past week, Grant Hill has been asked to do quite a bit, as he has had to guard Tyreke Evans, Monta Ellis and Joe Johnson. On all three occasions, the 39-year-old Phoenix Suns forward rose to the occasion and shut down his man.

Things are about to get even tougher. After strong defensive outings, Hill is now tasked with trying to limit Kobe Bryant for two straight games as part of a back-to-back set with the Lakers that begins with a road matchup Friday.

Hill knows exactly what’s ahead of him and is open to suggestions on how to limit the Lakers superstar. Until he hears of something better, Hill will stick to what he knows.

“You just compete and make him work on both ends,” Hill said. “He’s as good as they get. He gets up for the Suns, and he’s definitely the ultimate challenge.”

That defensive work ethic has made the veteran Hill an asset in Phoenix for reasons other than his obvious experience and leadership. In his past three games — Hill did not play Tuesday against Denver — Hill has held his opponents to a combined 20.5 percent shooting (8 for 39), setting the tone defensively and taking offensive stars out of games.

First it was Evans, who is averaging 17.3 points but was held to just four on 1-of-9 shooting against Hill. Then it was Ellis, Golden State’s leading scorer who had averaged 31.7 points in his previous three games, which included a 48-point performance. Against Hill, Ellis went 5 for 20 and had 18 points.

Hill then took a night off in Denver against a Nuggets team without leading scorer Danilo Galinari. He was reluctant to do so, but Suns coach Alvin Gentry insisted he rest his banged-up body amid the team’s first of two back-to-back-to-back sets.

Though Hill said Wednesday following a 101-99 loss to the Hawks that he would have preferred, in hindsight, to have played Tuesday, the rest seemed to have done some good. Hill limited Johnson, an Eastern Conference All-Star and Atlanta’s leading scorer, with 18.1 points per game entering the night, to six points on 2-for-10 shooting while playing all but 13 seconds of Johnson’s time on the floor.

“These guys are at the top of the food chain,” Suns swingman Jared Dudley said. “I’m glad we have someone like (Hill). I don’t think he gets enough credit.”

Hill, who also scored 18 points Wednesday, actually held Johnson scoreless. Johnson’s only points came against other defenders, with one point coming on a free throw.

Hill has a hard time enjoying his own defensive success, though, when the Suns aren’t winning games. Of Hill’s three big games, the Suns topped only Sacramento. On Wednesday, Josh Smith’s 30 points and 17 rebounds carried the Hawks.

“Even if your man goes off for big numbers, the bottom line is winning,” Hill said. “I’d trade the last few I was in and have my man go off for big numbers to get the win.”

That attitude might apply in particular to the next two games. Bryant is averaging a league-best 28.7 points per game, and Hill can only hope to limit the damage.

“You have to double-team him,” Dudley said. “No one man can slow down Kobe Bryant. Sometimes two can’t.”

In Bryant’s last game against the Suns, on Jan. 10 — after which he expressed a lingering disdain for the team — Bryant scored 48 points. The previous time, March 22 last year, he scored 42 points. In Bryant’s past five games against the Suns, four of which were Lakers wins, he has averaged 32.8 points.

Hill’s defensive streak bodes well for the upcoming games, but Gentry knows that with a player like Bryant, it’s not necessarily about the final numbers.

“We’ve just got to make a guy earn points,” Gentry said. “You can do a good job on a great player, and he can still have 30 points. That’s just the way it is.

“We’ve done great jobs on Kobe in the past, and at the end of the night he has 42 points or 40 points. I think it’s how he gets them that matters.”

Gentry has been Hill’s biggest advocate for the All-NBA defensive team, though the praise seems to have gone mostly unheard the past few seasons.

“I keep arguing that — and I’m sure everybody thinks I’m crazy — I don’t know that there’s another guy out there that is asked to do defensively what he’s done,” Gentry said. “We’ve asked him to guard point guards, (shooting) guards, small forwards and power forwards. The only thing we haven’t asked him to guard is a center.”

Hill said Wednesday he’s looking forward to the challenge of guarding the NBA’s best and takes pride in providing a defensive energy his teammates can feed off. His next challenge is about as difficult as it gets, but Hill isn’t one to back down, no matter the previous results.

As much as Bryant might take games with the Suns personally, Hill does so with every matchup.

“I always say that great offense trumps great defense, so you just try to make guys work for it and take it personally when guys score on you,” Hill said. “I take it personally.”