In our best collective offensive performance of the season the Spurs downed the Jazz 119-94 to return to .500 and hold on to the 8th spot in the Western Conference. The Spurs shot an impressive 51.9% from the field, but even more impressive was our collective 15-25 performance from beyond the 3-point line. Six Spurs, including Matt Bonner and Ime Udoka, scored in double digits.
Driven by Mehmet Okur's early hot hand, the Jazz seemed to harness the momentum for the majority of the first quarter. But the Spurs took the lead with 48 seconds left in the first and would never again cede control. For all intents and purposes the game was decided in the third quarter, during which Roger Mason scored 15 points, helping the Spurs' lead balloon from 7 at half to 24 headed into the fourth. He would finish the game with 29 points, having gone 10-17 from the field during his 30 minutes on the court. Although the idea has been floated before this moment, the official campaign begins now: Roger Mason Jr. should without a doubt receive this season's Most Improved Player award.
George Hill came off the bench, most likely in order to acclimate him to the rhythm of the game he will experience once Tony Parker returns. He used his 23 minutes to great effect, scoring 23 points, dishing out 3 assists and nabbing 3 steals. And like most every Spur who played well this evening, his solid numbers were produced quite efficiently (7-13 from the field). During the summer I often harped on the idea that the Spurs needed a third slasher to penetrate the defense when neither Manu nor Parker were on the court. I can say quite confidently that is what we have in Hill. Personnel decisions on the part of the Jazz made my preview largely irrelevant, but I did say quite clearly that I hoped Hill would be aggressive in his attempts to get to the basket. Well, the rookie took my advice to heart and made penetration his first priority.
Although Williams did not play, it is important to remember than once Parker returns, Hill will only be going up against premier point guards every so often. In general he will be going head to head with opposing team's second units, which is exactly who he faced this evening. And he responded by getting into the lane whenever he pleased. It is not uniquely impressive to roll over a Jazz team experiencing such severe injury problems, but just because Hill was productive against Ronnie Price and Brevin Knight, not Deron Williams, does not take away from his achievements this evening.
The fact of the matter is this team is a more effective offensive unit than I had ever imagined, and that is driven primarily by the inspired play of Roger Mason and George Hill. Mason has proven to be a fearless yet smart outside shooter while Hill has shown a combination of quickness, strength and inventiveness that make him not only a threat to get to the hoop but to finish with confidence once there. I spent much of the summer complaining about our shallow backcourt. But given how well we've responded since Parker's injury I am increasingly confident that this team will be a force to be reckoned with once Tony and Manu return. In other words, we are a .500 Western Conference team that is about to add two 20 point per game scorers over the next two weeks.
Tim Duncan scored 18 points while hauling in 7 boards over the course of 27 minutes. Although that is a solid contribution, Popovich made an excellent move limiting Duncan's minutes. With Carlos Boozer sidelined by an injury and the game well in hand halfway through the third, it was unnecessary to have Duncan drive himself the way we have asked him to game-in, game-out so far this season. When we have the opportunity to rest him, we must. He has played spectacularly so far, but as this team regains its confidence and returns to full strength it's important that we begin implementing our historical practice of limiting Duncan's regular season minutes.
Our upcoming schedule is reasonably manageable: At Memphis, Chicago, Memphis. Although not technically a statement game (beating a Boozer/Williams-less Jazz is nothing to write home about) I think this team feels confident going forward. It looks as if by the end of the week Manu Ginobili may be back on the floor. I don't want to count our chickens before they've hatched but the Spurs are in striking distance of surviving their most difficult regular season stretch in over a decade.