Not long ago, the San Antonio Spurs brass wanted to add another athletic Frenchman to the veteran mix. The fallback, or the first option, as some would have you believe, was a 6'2" kid from a no-name university with a freakish wingspan.
When Nicolas Batum was removed from the board one pick earlier, the Spurs threw support behind IUPUI product George Hill. There's nothing wrong with the fine school, but few not plugged in to college hoops in Indiana had ever heard of it.
Gregg Popovich said all the right things. He praised Hill's defensive aptitude and promised him a significant rotation role. He told a confused throng of Spurs fans that Hill would "contribute immediately."
The rest of his rocky San Antonio start—how he misfired in the Vegas Summer League, or how a high school kid dominated him in a scrimmage—does not need to be told again. He rises from embarrassment as well as anyone the Spurs have drafted.
The next chapter of Hill's story, though, merits attention. The Spurs thrashed and swatted the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday 109-94 to match the best 20-game start in franchise history. A 17-3 opening shows Manu Ginobili was not kidding when he implored coaches and players to approach November and December with more urgency.
The Spurs have done this before, but this torrid race out of the gates feels different. The last time the team started 17-3, in 2007-08, Popovich did not employ a fourth or fifth option as talented or versatile as Hill. Bruce Bowen, a still superior defender, had one more season left as the NBA's most hated, resident man-to-man pest.
Robert Horry was closer to the burger critic Popovich sees now than a clutch contributor capable of spectacular plays. Michael Finley could still unleash a barrage of triples, but his athleticism was zapped and his defense often troublesome. Jacque Vaughn and eventually Damon Stoudemire competed for the bulk of the reserve point guard minutes.
Horry, Finley and Bowen each recorded signature moments in that postseason: Finley knotted the playoff opener against the Phoenix Suns with a three-pointer. Bowen harangued Nash into critical turnovers in the series clincher and aggravated Peja Stojakovic in the next round. The Spurs would not have emerged victorious from a Game 7 in New Orleans without two second-half treys from Horry.
That team, though, suffered through perplexing and frustrating offensive lulls. In that nine-point stirring win against the Hornets, the Spurs survived a more than seven-minute stretch in the fourth without a field goal. When Ginobili was not special, the San Antonio offense devolved into an obscene deluge of bricks; Tony Parker and Tim Duncan could ill-afford off nights.
Hill looks ready now to make the difference.
The Spurs' record-tying 20-game takeoff has coincided with Duncan's worst. He's averaged his fewest point and rebound totals ever, but a career-low average in minutes made that inevitable. At times, the greatest power forward ever plays like a supporting cast member, while Parker and Ginobili steal the show and spotlight.
Sunday night served as further evidence the shift in responsibilities might help the Spurs keep up with or exceed the Lakers' regular-season mark. They can stay atop the West or close to it because a certain youngster with limited mileage can occupy center stage when necessary.
Hill was again strong in a victory, two days after his pugnacity spurred a rally from 15 down versus the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was one of many to sting the Hornets in the new-found collective, defenseless gut. He connected on all four of his shot attempts and all three free throws.
He converted another deflating and-one baseline drive and did his work in an efficient 15 minutes of action. A few other similar numbers will encourage Popovich.
Duncan played 18 minutes. Parker logged 26 minutes. Ginobili sat after 22 minutes. Popovich pulled all three players in the third period, as no starter played in the fourth quarter. The Spurs led by as many as 38 points.
With a slew of projected lottery squads on the December slate, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili figure to rest more than they ever have. San Antonio will challenge for 60-plus wins without placing an excessive burden on the roster's elders.
An NBA.com headline this morning read "Same Old, Same Old," but those sentiments have become outdated and inaccurate. The old Spurs were never built to score or run this much, nor could they afford the franchise pillar's significant bench relegation.
As long as Duncan plays in any capacity, many will see age as the Spurs' chief issue. Yet, Hill leads a hungry pack of young wolves that has proved it can contribute against playoff foes and contenders.
Popovich still rightfully pouts about the inconsistent, often mediocre defense. Does that concern trump Phil Jackson's necessary overuse of Pau Gasol? Can Jackson avoid many more 40-plus minute nights for the Spaniard, given that Andrew Bynum will need to ease his way back?
Hill will not become the All-Star some have predicted, and he does not make a rejuvenated Parker redundant. Instead, he anchors a second unit that no longer craves Ginobili's presence. He stars on some nights and struggles on others. He does enough to make this roster one of the most talented and explosive of the Duncan-Popovich era.
Whether this team win four playoff rounds remains to be seen. Things will change when the postseason arrives. Duncan opened Sunday's thrashing with three straight lay-ups. He will touch the ball a lot more and become a focal point in late April.
Unlike in past seasons, he should be both rested and ready. Preparedness has never been a problem for Duncan. Now, he can catch some proverbial Zs on the sidelines while his team wins the way the Miami Heat was supposed to.
The Spurs boast the league's best point differential and one of its best offenses. San Antonio started 17-3 before, but Hill and Richard Jefferson played elsewhere. Jefferson still suited up for the New Jersey Nets, and Hill was about to become IUPUI's little-known star.
The Lakers had just defeated the Spurs in five games, and the need for an offensive boost was obvious. The front office thought it could upgrade its defense and offense with another Frenchman. When a trade involving the Portland Trail Blazers rendered a Parker-Batum-Ian Mahinmi triumvirate impossible, Popovich and Buford decided Hill was the guy. Maybe that was the case all along.
When the Golden State Warriors come to town Wednesday, the Spurs will continue to push this record, unorthodox-for-Popovich pace. They look ready now to sustain it, with a sparkplug combo guard helping keep the veterans' minutes down and a high-octane offense fueled.
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