LOS ANGELES -- With All-Stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili closer to the end of their NBA careers than the beginning, it's critical for the San Antonio Spurs to develop some young talent. George Hill is one example.
Hill scored all of his 22 points in the first three quarters against a Los Angeles Clippers squad suddenly faced with yet another transitionary period, and the Spurs breezed to a 98-81 victory on Saturday night.
"George Hill's just a fantastic basketball player," coach Gregg Popovich said. "I think he's the most improved young man in the league from last year to this year. We're really thrilled with his progress in his shooting and his approach to the game -- being aggressive, believing in himself and thinking that he's a darn good player."
Hill, the Spurs' first-round draft pick in June 2008, has led them in scoring in three of their last four games. The second-year guard from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis was the first player from his school to make it to the NBA.
The Spurs handed the Clippers their 11th loss in 15 games overall, converting 21 turnovers into 31 points. Hill made his first five shots and finished the opening quarter with 17 points -- one more than his total output in Thursday's 96-93 loss at Portland.
"I wouldn't say I owned the first quarter," Hill said. "My teammates just got me the ball in the right spots and I had confidence in my shooting. I've always been a scorer, but I think the summer really gave me the confidence I needed to be successful. I worked hard on a lot of things that carried over into the season, and it's starting to pay off."
Hughes, who had been Dunleavy's assistant since the 2003-04 season, took over an inconsistent squad that was 21-28 and seven games out of a playoff spot with 33 to play.
"It's tough, but it's my choice," Hughes said. "You have to let the losses go. They hurt and they tear at your heart. It's awful. If I don't like the pressure and the fire, then it's on me. No one forced me to do this. I wasn't coerced into it. I was presented with it and I said, 'OK, I'll take it.' Mike ascertained the situation pretty accurately -- that they needed a new voice. That's no detriment to Mike, it's just that this group really kind of tuned him out."
For all Hughes knows, he could already have had a head coaching job. He acknowledged that other teams had approached the Clippers about interviewing him. But under the terms of his contract, the club had the right to prevent him from doing so.
"I was told by one GM that he wanted to interview me and wasn't given permission. I thought that was wrong, initially," Hughes said. "I choose to think that you should always let someone try to better themselves. But I understand that now. I mean, why lose an asset to another team?"
Dunleavy, who had the third-longest tenure among current NBA coaches behind Popovich and Utah's Jerry Sloan, will continue as the team's general manager.
Hughes is facing a similar situation to Popovich when he got his first head coaching job in the league as Bob Hill's replacement in December 1996. The Spurs made the playoffs in each of Popovich's first 12 full seasons as head coach and won four NBA titles along the way.
That streak is on shaky ground now, with the club 29-20 and clinging to sixth place in the tightly bunched Western Conference. But Hughes would love to be in that position, and Popovich's methods would serve as the perfect blueprint.
"He knows it's going to be difficult, in the sense that there will probably be things he wants to do that are tough to institute without a training camp," Popovich said. "So he's walking a very difficult line. He wants to make his mark on that team. But they've been doing other things all year long, and it's tough to break those habits. So he's got to pick and choose wisely and be patient."
Tony Parker had 14 points and 14 assists -- one off his career high -- for San Antonio in his second game back after missing three games because of a sprained left ankle.
The victory was San Antonio's 15th straight over the Clippers, the league's longest current winning streak by one team over another. The Spurs also have won their last 14 against the woeful Nets, whom they will face on March 29 in New Jersey. The Clippers have dropped 22 of their last 23 against San Antonio overall, the only victory coming on March 7, 2006, at Los Angeles.
Hughes had coached the Clippers a few other times due to extenuating circumstances, most recently in a loss to Denver on Nov. 26, 2008, while Dunleavy was in Dallas for his father-in-law's funeral.
This was the sixth time the Clippers have changed coaches during a season since the franchise moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984-85. The others who were replaced were Jim Lynam (by Don Chaney), Gene Shue (by Don Casey), Mike Schuler (by Larry Brown), Chris Ford (by Jim Todd) and Alvin Gentry (by Dennis Johnson). ... Brown won his first five games after taking over for Schuler. On the flip side, Todd lost his first 11, Casey his first eight, Chaney his first five, and Johnson his first three.