Monday, October 13, 2008

Express News: Spurs Go Young In Preseason Loss

Jeff McDonald - Express-News

HOUSTON — Gregg Popovich emerged from the visitors' locker room at the Toyota Center on Thursday night, and immediately two nearby security guards became star-struck.

“Hey,” one of them said, motioning to the white-bearded Spurs coach, “it's Donald Sutherland.”

Popovich laughed.

The Spurs dropped their preseason opener against Houston, 85-78, and got a pretty sobering look at the damage Ron Artest might wreak in a red and white Houston uniform, but Popovich couldn't have cared less about the outcome had he really been his movie-acting doppelganger.

With a “who's who” of veteran Spurs either seated behind his bench in street clothes or watching from the comfort of their home sofas, Popovich was eager to see how his younger players might respond to their first real taste of NBA action.

“It's a fun time of year to see those young guys play, to see how they go up against the big boys, so to speak, and watch how they react,” Popovich said. “That's the fun of it. If we win, nobody cares, and if we lose nobody cares.”

Popovich gave veteran starters Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley the night off, while Manu Ginobili, Kurt Thomas, Salim Stoudamire and Ian Mahinmi remained in San Antonio to nurse varying degrees of injury.

The Spurs would be hard-pressed to win a game with even half of the above out.

“That's kind of a hit to our personnel right there,” Matt Bonner noted.

Playing in the first game of a preseason-opening back-to-back — the Spurs face New Orleans at home tonight — the Spurs turned large portions of the game over to a collection of players who had not set foot on an NBA floor until Thursday. Most of them won't be on the team in a month.

There were bright spots — Darryl Watkins swatting Artest and Aaron Brooks on the same possession.

And there were not-so-bright spots — Anthony Tolliver, the shooting star of summer league, going 3-of-11.

Malik Hairston, who the Spurs acquired on a draft-day trade with Phoenix, fell on the plus side of the ledger, leading the team with 10 points.

Artest, the Rockets' marquee offseason addition, scored 18, including 10 in a row during a second quarter that Houston won 28-12. He probably will start to scare the Spurs once the games begin to count.

For the Spurs' part, most eyes were on rookie point guard George Hill, the team's first-round pick out of IUPUI.

If the Spurs worried the 22-year-old might be overwhelmed by his first game against NBA competition, those fears were alleviated even before tipoff. Then, Hill strutted out to the court for warm-ups, and immediately raised his fist to salute Artest on the other end of the court.

Artest, who knows Hill from his days with the Indiana Pacers, saluted back.

“As a player, you always think you belong,” Hill said.

Once he got in the game, midway through the third quarter, Hill set about to prove it.

He had his ups and downs — throwing in a 20-footer and a teardrop, but later blowing an open layup and committing a critical charge. In keeping with what he has shown in training camp, Hill was masterful on the defensive end, swiping five steals in 17 minutes.

“You have to learn how to crawl before you walk, and tonight I learned to crawl,” said Hill, who also had six points and three assists. “As we keep going, I'll learn how to walk.”
Hill's finally showing some signs of why the Spurs decided to pass up names like Arthur and Chalmers to pick him up. In his NBA debut, he looked surprisingly solid and confident, especially on the defensive side of the floor where his length and quickness nabbed a surprising five steals. Obviously, anybody is entitled to some beginners luck, but it's good to see some signs from the IUPUI rookie.

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