Spurs’ Hill, Memphis’ Conley rekindle old times

By Jeff McDonald

Shortly before the start of the playoffs, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled guard George Hill aside and issued marching orders only he could understand.

Once the postseason began, Popovich said, he wanted the mild-mannered Hill to transform into an alter ego named Indiana George.

“Pop means Indiana George from back in Indianapolis,” Hill said. “Just being a freak of nature on offense.”

In the other huddle in this first-round series, running point guard for Memphis, is a player who knows Indiana George well.

“That guy,” Mike Conley said, “was lethal.”

Growing up within a few miles of each other in Indianapolis, as friends and adversaries, Hill and Conley never dreamed they would one day leave a mark on the same NBA playoff series.

Memphis won Game 1 in part because Conley, a 23-year-old playoff tenderfoot, went toe-to-toe with Tony Parker, the Spurs’ three-time All-Star. The Spurs evened the series in Game 2 in part because Indiana George finally showed up in the second half, scoring 14 of his 16 points.

The two hoopsters from the Hoosier state go way back, central figures in an Indianapolis basketball tradition that now fills half an NBA roster.

Now 24, Hill was once a ?scoring star at Broad Ripple High, a city school without much of a basketball reputation, where he averaged a state-leading 36.2 points as a senior in 2005 before playing college ball at hometown IUPUI.

Indiana George was fearless, with a you-can’t-stop-me-or-even-hope-to-contain-me swagger. Indiana George didn’t care who was on the floor with him, or who was assigned to guard him.

Indiana George once scored 49 points in a high school game, without stepping foot on the court in the fourth quarter.

“He could score in so many different ways,” said Conley, who watched Hill tie his NBA career-high of 30 points in his last trip to Memphis on March 27. “Nobody could stop him.”

Conley played at Lawrence North, a prestigious suburban hoops factory where he wasn’t even the most famous player in the Class of 2006. Before he became a limping cautionary tale, Greg Oden would go on to be Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, a consensus collegiate player of the year alongside Conley at Ohio State and the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Though a year older, Hill knew Conley from their schoolboy battles, elite AAU tournaments and summer pick-up games.

“Mike is a true point guard,” Hill said. “He sees the floor well and gets everyone involved.”

Even after Memphis made Conley the fourth pick in the 2007 draft, three selections after Oden went to Portland, he couldn’t shake his second-fiddle label. He split time his first two seasons with Kyle Lowry at the point, a situation Conley now calls “the lowest point I’ve had my entire basketball career.”

When Lionel Hollins took over as head coach in January 2009, one of his first moves was to install Conley at point guard and leave him there.

“If I didn’t have to go through what I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t be where I’m at,” Conley said.

In the first two games of his first postseason, Conley averaged 14 points, seven assists and 5.5 rebounds.

Hill has averaged 15.5 points, six rebounds and three steals. After a two-point first half in Game 2, Indiana George exploded in the second half to get the Spurs over the hump.

Though he has made just 5 of 16 field goals, Hill has gone to the foul line a team-high 22 times, converting 19 — testament to the forcefulness Popovich has asked of him. Hill remains key for the Spurs even after Manu Ginobili’s return from an injury moved him back to the bench in Game 2.

“Manu’s injury has nothing to do with George,” Popovich said. “Even with Manu, he’s got to play well for us.”

In a way, Hill and Conley have been preparing for this moment since they were teenagers. Playing high school ball in Indianapolis in the mid-2000s was like attending NBA prep school.

In addition to Hill, Conley and Oden, Indy was also home to future NBAers Eric Gordon, Courtney Lee and Jeff Teague. Another, Jared Jeffries, played in nearby Bloomington.

“Any given night, you were going against someone who is in the NBA now,” Hill said.

On Saturday, in a Game 3 in Memphis that could again swing momentum in the series, it will just be the two of them.

Indiana George and Indiana Mike. Just like old times.

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