The Spurs have lost two in a row, six of seven and nine of fifteen games overall in December, in what's shaping up to be the worst month of the Tim Duncan Era. If all that wasn't bad enough, there's probably no team in the league they'd less prefer to face than tonight's opponent, the Houston Rockets, who've beaten them six times in a row and look to have bolstered their already strong roster with the additions of Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved to complement James Harden, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley et al. Oh, and the Spurs will have to face them without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, who are out again with hand and hamstring injuries, respectively. The Spurs will be underdogs to be sure.
So what better cavalry for underdogs than a man from down under?
That's right, Patty Mills will suit up tonight and make his season debut, according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Pop didn't offer any predictions, proclamations, guesses or... well, anything, really about Mills. Technically he didn't even promise that the Australian would play, but just the fact that he's suited up is an excellent sign and anything Mills could provide at all would be highly beneficial given the absences of Leonard and Parker. Not only do the Spurs need his firepower, but even more so his energy. Though it's been less of an issue at home than on the road, the Spurs have definitely been victim to periods of sluggishness and lifelessness without Leonard's energy stirring them, and if there's one thing Mills provides, it's energy.
Mills finished sixth on the Spurs last season, scoring 10.2 points per game and shot 46.4 percent, which was very impressive considering the types of shots he takes. He led the club with 135 three-pointers and shot 42.5 percent from downtown. His numbers dipped a bit across the board in the playoffs --as did his playing time-- but Mills saved his best for last, scoring 14 and 17 points in Games 4 and 5 of the Finals and nailing 9-of-14 threes in those two games to help bring a fifth Larry O'Brien Trophy to San Antonio.
Though Mills' celebration wound up being short-lived --the team's medical staff discovered he was playing with a torn rotator cuff that would require surgery and six months of rehab-- the Spurs did right by him as a free agent, signing him to a three-year, $13 million contract with $10 million in guarantees. Perhaps he could've gotten more elsewhere had his shoulder been healthy, but we'll never know. What was readily apparent though was that Mills thrived in a reserve role last season playing with Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli as part of the team's "foreign legion," and it's doubtful that he would be as efficient elsewhere, particularly in a situation where some middling team over-extended him as a starter. The situation here fits Mills well and he wasn't looking to leave.
Mills was cleared, according to Popovich on Dec. 23, three weeks ahead of his mid-January return date, but hadn't even participated in a full five-on-five practice with contact as of the Christmas game against the Thunder. The Spurs haven't held any practices since, meaning that unless Mills got really got knocked around good with the training staff at a shoot-around or two, he'll be going into this without much preparation. We should probably adjust our expectations for him accordingly.
Again though, he's a warm body, he's back and anything he can give for these shorthanded Spurs will be welcome.
Popovich didn't have give any timetables for the returns of Leonard or Parker, though he sounded like he expects the latter to return first.
"Memphis (on Dec. 30) will be six days, New Orleans will be seven, he saw the doctor and got the MRI and basically it's going to be his confidence level, on how he feels and a couple of workouts," Popovich said of Parker's potential return after twice re-aggravating a hamstring he originally strained on Nov. 5 at Memphis. "So far the MRI looks good, but he's got some demon in there that's very painful and we'll just see how his body works through that. But it's not going to be a very long time because these four days were very important for him."
As for Leonard, Pop had no update on him, but stressed his importance defensively, explaining all the ways the team is missing him there. "He's our best perimeter defender, obviously, and he guards a variety of players, point guards, 'three' men, 'two' men, so he gives us good versatility defensively," Popovich said. "That position is really important to rebound, to help the bigs, and we really miss him there. He makes steals and energizes us, we score a little bit off his defense, so he's a huge factor for us defensively."
A win over the dreaded Rockets would be a nice way to cap off the weekend, but for the Spurs to really lift off, they'll need Leonard and Parker to return, for good, and sooner the better.