Tim Duncan wasn't supposed to play until the weekend, but he felt so good in his morning workout Wednesday that he returned early from the ankle sprain that's kept him out since March 20.

And then he played four minutes more than San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich had planned to use him against the Utah Jazz in the Delta Center.

Popovich, however, wasn't about to use him down the stretch as the Jazz stayed in the fray and then beat the Spurs for the second straight time in Utah on a Mehmet Okur tipin, 93-91.

Duncan, the NBA's 2002 and 2003 MVP, started and played 20 minutes, hitting six of seven shots, scoring 17 and grabbing seven boards.

"I thought he was fantastic," Popovich said, adding he'd have like to have used Duncan more and perhaps had a better chance to win, but, "I don't want to fall for fool's gold and get him in a position where that ankle is too weak and something happens to it."

The Spurs, who lead the Southwest Division comfortably with a 58-21 record, have been winning without Duncan. They had won their last three and were 8-4 with him on the injured list.

They don't want to go into the playoffs without him, though, and Popovich was quite pleased by Wednesday's early return that should allow Duncan to begin getting used to the banging and rhythm of the game before San Antonio has to open the postseason.

"I'm just thankful he got through it. Sure, we wanted to put him in, but I don't think that would have been wise," said Popovich, who saw a returning superstar with "a lot of poise on the floor.

"He had his touch, ran the floor pretty good and had good wind. That's what I was really impressed with," said the coach.

"What he can't do yet is move laterally real well, start and stop. His timing and passing were pretty good considering how long it's been since he played."

"He did great," said Spurs' guard Manu Ginobili, who totaled 21 points. "I wish I could play like that after missing 12 games."

Knowing his teammate pretty well, Ginobili added, "I'll bet he wanted to keep playing."

Duncan's return gave the Spurs, tired from a game-heavy stretch and ready for some rest, a shot in the arm.

"Yeah, it does," Ginobili said. "Even seeing him working so hard and trying to run and doing rehab, I think that's huge.

"He could be a star and sit down and wait and don't care, but he's not that way."

E-mail: lham@desnews.com