Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Express News: Rookie impressive, but Spurs fall again


Jeff McDonald - Express-News

Five months ago, George Hill was sitting on his sofa in Indianapolis watching Chris Paul, New Orleans' Wizard of Ahs, carve up the Spurs in the NBA playoffs.

Like the rest of the basketball-watching public, Hill was impressed.

“He's one of the greatest point guards in the league today,” Hill said. “He's quick; he's crafty with it. You have to respect his game.”

On Friday night at the AT&T Center, far removed from the comfortable distance of his living room, Hill found himself nose-to-chest with an All-Star point guard he'd previously known only from television.

What happened next was an encouraging sign for the Spurs. Their rookie point guard held his own.

Hill, the team's top choice in this year's draft, finished with 10 points in 24 minutes of the Spurs' 89-84 defeat. He made a pair of 3-pointers, doled out three assists, had a block and a steal and did a capable job of defending Paul.

More importantly, when pitted against the best the NBA has to offer and his position, Hill — a 6-foot-2 guard from a little-known college called IUPUI — looked as if he belonged.

“George has a good, quiet confidence about himself,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He's got a good demeanor on the court.”

Mike James had 18 points off the bench to lead the Hornets. Tyson Chandler had 14, six of them on dunks coming off assists from Paul, who had nine points and seven assists.

At times, with the alley-oops flying and the rims rattling, it seemed like May all over again.

Tim Duncan made his first preseason appearance, scoring 12 points in 18 minutes for the Spurs, and Tony Parker logged his second consecutive solid outing with 10 points in 16 minutes.

The storyline for the Spurs, however, was the 22-year-old vying for time as Parker's backup.

Before the game, Popovich unveiled his plan to throw Hill into the fire early. The coach was just curious to see how his rookie would react.

“He can watch Chris go by him,” Popovich said then, “and try to figure out what he can do about it.”

Thrust into the fray in the first quarter, Hill wasted little time showing he belongs in the middle of this budding Western Conference rivalry.

Fourteen seconds into his shift, Hill found himself between Paul and the basket, the shot-clock winding down. Using his long arms wisely, Hill forced Paul into an awkward 7-footer that missed.

Within the next three minutes, Hill would pester Paul into another miss, draw a foul on a hard drive to the hoop and bury an open 3-pointer.

Later, Hill flashed his tenacity, scrapping ably with New Orleans forward David West after being caught in a switch.

“I think Coach Pop is starting to figure out I like taking a challenge,” Hill said. “I'm not going to back down from anyone. Chris Paul's a great player, and I'm a rookie. But at the same time, it's just basketball.”

Officially, Hill had made his NBA preseason debut a night earlier in Houston. Friday was just the day he became an NBA player.

Hill's veteran teammates had little sympathy for the rookie's tough assignment.

“That's the NBA,” Michael Finley said. “His days of playing in college are over. He's a professional now.”

Hill wouldn't have it any other way. He'd much rather meet Paul on the court than watch him from his sofa.

“You can't live in the fan world,” Hill said. “It's a business now. It's my job.”

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