A barrage of injuries, losses, and exhausting overtime games has made the harsh cold of December brutal and seemingly never-ending for the San Antonio Spurs. But Sunday night’s surprising return of Patty Mills and a potentially stabilizing 110-106 victory over the Houston Rockets offers some respite for the weary defending champions.
Mills was shaky in his return, as could be expected after months removed from the basketball court following offseason shoulder surgery. A bevy of missed shots (0-4 from three-point territory) and turnovers (five) did little to dissuade his teammates’ enthusiasm for the hyperactive point guard’s return.
“His energy, just his activity was contagious. It brought a huge spark to the team,” Tim Duncan said. “Even he’ll say he didn’t play the greatest, but he made such a huge impact just being back out there.”
The Spurs confidence in Mills paid off down the stretch, with Mills scoring eight points and pressuring James Harden into a decisive turnover in the closing minute while playing almost the entirety of the fourth quarter.
“[It was rough] with the grind that the guys were going through, coming into the locker room knowing that they were tired and that there weren’t that many subs to give them a break,” Mills said. “It was disappointing thing for me because I felt helpless.”
Mills returned to a standing ovation from the San Antonio crowd, infusing the AT&T Center with energy. But perhaps his greatest contribution was some measure of a return to normalcy.
The strength of this Spurs team has become their versatility, but injured players have taken important skills sets off the table for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, limiting some lineup options and forcing players to push minutes and roles beyond their capabilities. While manageable in brief stints, extended stretches produce diminishing returns and at times crashed the Spurs vaunted system.
But Mills’ unique blend of energy, speed, spacing, and quick burst scoring allows the Spurs to better balance their lineups, providing a trickledown effect that could help rejuvenate the team on several fronts.
“He couldn’t find his shot tonight, but his energy, just being on the court and being a team guy, moving the basketball was huge for us,” Popovich said. “It’s another body where we don’t have to be in the hole minutes-wise.”
The starting lineups’ offense –as with many Cory Joseph helmed lineups—was anemic with a 92.1 offensive rating (projected points per 100 possessions). Duncan (16 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks) continued his brilliant march, finding a few in system shots early, but the team struggles when forced to rely on him as their best or only shot creator for more than a few possessions.
But Mills return allowed Popovich to insert Marco Belinelli into the starting lineup, where his defensive liabilities could best be hidden, while also leaving overmatched rookie Kyle Anderson off the court altogether.
Cory Joseph has been solid in Tony Parker’s absence, proving himself a viable full-time rotation player, but he’s still merely a placeholder in the lead guard spot; holding down the fort while better creators rest or recover. And with Joseph as the only health point guard through most of this month, Manu Ginobili has been taxed with the bulk of the playmaking responsibilities. While still capable, the heavy minutes and usage quickly eats into his efficiency and dulls his decision making at this stage in his career.
Though not a natural playmaker, Mills represents a credible threat defenses must respect at all times, bending defenses in ways that make things easier for teammates. Though his dribble was a little too loose in his return, Mills ability to push the pace and provide some ball handling allows Ginobili to play off the ball some while also reducing his minutes (24 on the night). Perhaps just as importantly, it opens up other Danny Green lineups that don’t crater the offense.
Green has been indispensable this month and was perhaps the Spurs best all-around player against the Rockets with 24 points, five steals, four rebounds, and three assists while spending significant time on Harden (who scored 28 points but also had nine turnovers), memorably shutting down Harden’s devastating Eurostep in transition.
While Green flashed some of the subtle improvements he’s showcased all season—a nifty move at the rim in transition, threading a pocket pass to Duncan in traffic, and a few under control drives—his offensive contributions are still primarily tied to the ability of the playmakers around him, which brings us back to Mills and how his return stabilizes some of the Spurs’ lineups.
Green and Joseph are currently the Spurs’ most trustworthy perimeter defenders and were crucial in the Spurs building and maintaining their lead in the fourth quarter against Houston, but pairing them without a credible perimeter playmaker can sabotage the Spurs offense unless Duncan is having one of those nights where he commands double teams in the post.
The Spurs two key defensive lineups were comprised of Mills/Joseph/Green/Duncan/Matt Bonner and that same lineup with Ginobili taking Joseph’s spot. In six and four minute stints each lineup suffocated the Rockets with a 75 and 76.1 Defensive Rating (projected points per 100 possessions).
To put those stats into context, Popovich was able to play his best defensive perimeter while resting Ginobili without cratering the offense into the depths of hell by using Bonner’s spacing and the dual point guard lineup to push the tempo and find easy baskets.
Yes, the defense was still a mess at times without Kawhi Leonard, surrendering 12 offensive rebounds. And the offense still coughed up 19 turnovers. But by welcoming back a missed skill set, every other available player on the Spurs roster moves back into a comfort zone where their contributions shine and their weaknesses mitigated.
It may be a small ripple, but as it connects with and creates other ripples the Spurs’ ecosystem starts to whirr back into motion and good health.
(All stats and quotes were obtained from NBA.com)