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Why the Spurs have to stick by Patty Mills through this slump

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A look at the battle for the backup center spot, Lonnie Walker IV’s surprising success with the starters and why giving up on the struggling Mills would be a mistake.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is almost over. The Spurs took a huge step towards securing a spot in the play-in tournament with a win against the Kings, but a brutal closing schedule is still ahead.

It’s a good time to try to figure out where the Silver and Black stand as we head into the final stretch. With that in mind, here are some of the more interesting story lines that are still unresolved in San Antonio.

The race for the backup center spot remains open

After Drew Eubanks seemed to have secured the role for a while, it looks like the battle for the backup center spot remains in flux. Eubanks has recently been checking in first for Jakob Poeltl, but Gorgui Dieng, who shined against the 76ers, got the nod in one game against the Jazz.

It’s not ideal to have any sort of doubt when it comes to rotations this late in the season, but this is a unique enough situation for Gregg Popovich to get a pass. Dieng was brought in to be the backup after Eubanks seemed to not be up for the job only to get hurt immediately in his first game as a Spur. Eubanks picked up his play and now San Antonio has a capable veteran center that was probably promised a shot at big minutes in the deep bench. Dieng deserves a chance, so it’s understandable that the coaching staff is at least looking for opportunities to try the fit.

There have been good moments from Dieng, who was legitimately good in Philadelphia and passable against the Jazz in the two games out of the last five in which he got double-digit minutes, but it doesn’t seem like those performances did enough to convince Pop to go away from Eubanks. A likely reason why is Dieng’s predictable regression as an outside threat. A career 34 percent three-point shooter doesn’t normally turn into a high 40s marksman, so a dip was expected. Surely the fluctuation in minutes and roles isn’t helping Dieng get into a rhythm, but shooting 28 percent from outside as a Spur is not the way to leapfrog Eubanks.

There are still a few games before the play-in, so there might be some more experimentation coming. Even if his shot doesn’t come around, Dieng’s experience and size could be more helpful in certain matchups than Eubanks’ athleticism and boundless energy. It will be interesting to see if Pop continues to tinker with his center rotations or finally settles for one.

Lonnie Walker IV is finally finding his place next to other scorers

Walker has five games in which he has scored 20 points or more this season. Four of those have come with at least one of Dejounte Murray or DeMar DeRozan in the inactive list. For a long time it seemed that Walker was at his best when he got to be the sole high-usage scorer in the roster, but the past two games offer hope for the future.

Since entering the starting lineup against Sacramento, Walker has looked a lot more comfortable playing next to DeRozan in particular, serving as a pressure release for the Spurs’ leading scorer when opponents send help. Walker is perfect in that role, because he doesn’t have to think much. If he’s open from outside, he can shoot. If someone closes out strong, he can drive.

For some reason Lonnie was always extremely hesitant in the past when he played with offensive players that were above him in the pecking order, but that seems to be fading away. Instead of catching the ball, faking, taking a couple of dribbles and passing it back — his modus operandi for a long time — he’s now finally attacking. If he’s willing to continue to do that, then he’s probably a better option than Devin Vassell as a starter for the rest of the season, especially considering Vassell’s recent shooting struggles.

Lonnie has always given off some serious young J.R. Smith/current Jordan Clarkson vibes as a guy who’ll likely thrive off the bench, where he’ll have more freedom to gun. That’s probably still the role he’ll suit the best long term, but for now it’s great to see him play off other creators well, since the Spurs need all the firepower they can get.

Patty Mills and the struggling veteran conundrum

Patty Mills has been struggling for a while now. He shot 34 percent from the floor and 31 percent from beyond the arc in April and has been shooting 23 percent from the floor and 19 percent from outside so far in May. In that time the Spurs have been almost 13 points better per 100 possessions with him off the floor.

The numbers are brutal and the eye test confirms that Mills has not been himself lately, so understandably there have been some clamors for his role to be reduced and for the leash on him to be short. The problem is that it’s hard to do that when it comes to a valuable veteran. If Mills (or Rudy Gay, for that matter) starts being benched every time he misses a couple of shots, his confidence, which is probably already low, will plummet. Since he’s on the last year of his contract he might even check out and start thinking about free agency. There are games in which playing others instead could be beneficial in the moment, but coaches have to consider the big picture.

Mills seems mature enough to handle a demotion well while remaining ready, as we saw in the bubble, but it’s one thing to go into a stretch knowing that you’ll play less or not at all because of strategic reasons, and quite another to know that the change in minutes is the result of poor play and a lack of trust. Pros seem able to easily mentally prepare for the former but not so much the latter. If the Spurs want Mills to return to form in hopes of being at their best for the final stretch and the play-in, they’ll need to continue to play him through his slump and hope he comes out of it. It might be painful at times, but it’s probably the right decision.

The Spurs will have some tough decisions to make about their veterans in the offseason, which might unfortunately include Mills. For now, however, they need their emotional leader to go back to being a positive presence on the court, and that will require trusting him with the minutes and shot he needs to play through this rough stretch.