The Spurs finally snapped a four-game losing streak, their worst in a regular season since April of 2011, and perhaps the combination of that and the holiday season --and the good fortune of facing the Oklahoma City Thunder this afternoon without Kevin Durant-- had Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in a festive spirit.
Or perhaps it's the fact that one of his most productive elves from last year, Patty Mills, will be returning soon to toil in the Spurs factory.
Popovich delivered a Christmas present to Spurs fans by way of good news. Mills, who has missed the whole season rehabbing from off-season surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, was cleared by the team's medical staff on December 23rd. There's only one thing stopping him suiting up.
"I'm not going to let him play," Popovich said. "I'm going to hold him off as long as I can. There will be a point where he won't allow me to do that anymore and that's fine. But for now I'm winning the battle. At some point I'll lose it."
Popovich went on to explain that while Mills has been playing one-on-one and two-on-two for a week, and very recently cleared for 5-on-5, that he'll have to prove he can handle game-type contact before he ever steps on to the court for real.
"There's nothing I'm going to see with my eyes, I'm just going to feel better," Popovich said. "I always err on the conservative side and I'll just feel better if he takes more time, gets knocked around on the court a little bit more in our sessions, just a comfort level, because I know if he screws up the shoulder now we're going to lose him for the rest of the year and he's way too important, he affects our offense significantly."
In the past the Spurs designated "knock around" guy was Bruce Bowen, but there isn't anyone specific to fill that role now, according to Popovich, so Mills will have to work the rust off with a committee of sparring partners.
"Bruce wasn't tough, he was just a pest," Popovich explained. "He was a pain in the ass. He'd like stick fingers in you like this. Bill Laimbeer was tough. You need somebody with some girth and that kind of thing to go after somebody. No it's just general contact that you would get, on pick-and-rolls, running into a screen, I just want to see him do that a lot, I don't want it to be first time to be out on the court in a game against whoever unless he's done it a bunch of times with us, and he's been doing it now for maybe a week he's been going one-on-one or two-on-two, the other day five-on-five, so he's getting close, there's no doubt about that."
One thing's for sure, it won't be Mills' countryman Aron Baynes testing out Mills' shoulder.
"I keep Aron Baynes away from everyone," Popovich chuckled. "I don't let him near anybody. He practices by himself on the other court."
Mills clarified to Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News that he was cleared to play 5-on-5 without limitations but hadn't partaken in that as of yet and added that he doesn't feel anywhere near ready to return just this second, but still believes he'll beat the original mid-January timetable.
Meanwhile, the situation with Kawhi Leonard's right hand is still up in the air, with no date set for his return.
"It's a pain thing," Popovich said. "He can't move his hand. He can't catch and dribble and all that stuff with his hand. Hopefully something will happen but medically they don't think he can hurt it any more than it's hurt now, so that's good. So it's just a matter of when he can get used to the hand I guess because it's just too stiff and doesn't work like your hand works. It's just whenever it heals. Maybe it doesn't heal but he gets used to his hand. It's not there yet. Will it be there tomorrow at New Orleans, will it be two weeks from now? I honestly don't know."
Pop said that Leonard is doing all the usual conditioning stuff to stay in shape but that he expected him to be relatively out of shape when he returns because nothing can simulate playing in real games.
The main concern with Leonard and Mills out and Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter only recently returning to action is to keep the able-bodied players healthy and not burn them out, trying to over-compensate for the ones missing, and of course that means Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in particular.
"Timmy's played too many minutes, Manu's played too many minutes, so I have to take care of that over time so that we can be as energetic and fresh as we can possibly be," Popovich said. "I'll opt to not play them but when we had the two triple-overtimes it was kind of hard to sit them in those situations so that's like an extra 15 minutes for both of them for two nights, two games in a row, and that kind of skewed everything."
Not playing the vets is easier said than done considering the standings in the brutal Western Conference. The Spurs aren't in their typical perch high above teams jockeying for the final spots. They're in the muck with everyone else, jostling.
"Aren't we like eighth or ninth or seventh or whatever we are?" Popovich asked, rhetorically. (It's seventh, coach.) "It's not like we're automatically in, we have to play well enough to get in and there are a lot of good teams out here."
All in all though don't expect to hear Popovich whine or complain or curse the basketball gods anytime soon, especially on a day like today. Asked if he got what he wanted for Christmas, Popovich replied that he hasn't asked for any presents since 1997.
"Ever since we've drafted Timmy I've asked for nothing," he said. "Any time anything bad happens like injuries I say, ‘Well, the scales are just evening, that's all they're doing.' We've have enough luck that anybody should ever ask for anything else is unfair. We never feel badly about anything bad that happens to us, because we were able to get Timmy. That's the truth. Nothing will ever balance that."
I think he read my recap of the last Portland loss. (Okay, probably not.)