By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Meet Patty Mills, the latest once-anonymous, low-minute man to thrive as a meaningful member of the San Antonio Spurs.
In a game last week at Dallas, a bad back sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically started Cory Joseph in these instances to keep Mills firing off the bench. On this night, with the Mavericks desperate for a win as they chased a playoff spot, Popovich surprised the 6-foot Mills by starting him at point guard for just the second time this season.
Mills responded by destroying Dallas’ backcourt with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points, six assists, a couple steals and not a single turnover in 36 minutes. If you squinted, it almost looked like the jitterbug wearing No. 8 was really Parker’s No. 9. The Spurs won the game, going on to sweep the regular-season series 4-0 against a Mavs team they might see again this weekend when the playoffs begin.
The first-round matchup will be determined Wednesday when Dallas plays at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser will assume the eighth seed and head for San Antonio. The Grizzlies are also 0-4 against the Spurs.
After the big victory over Dallas, Mills was asked if he finds himself looking ahead to the playoffs considering he’s headed for his first postseason as an integral part of a rotation.
“No, no, and obviously it’s not easy to do,” Mills said in a softly spoken Australian accent. “You really need to focus on the job at hand and we’ve got games like tonight we’ve still got to play which are going to develop us and give us a good opportunity to get better against playoff teams.”
He quickly added: “I think whether we won or lost tonight’s game, I think it was a matter of how well we played that we came out of this game, you know, better.”
It reminded of the line Popovich delivered earlier this month to his club during TNT’s timeout peek into the Spurs’ huddle at Oklahoma City:
“I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I’d rather win but I want to win the right way.”
Mills, told he sounded much like Pop, said with a grin: “I’ve been around him for a while now, so…”
Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Mills, 25, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s in Northern California and was the 55th pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. During the 2011 lockout he returned to Australia and went to China briefly. San Antonio signed him in March 2012 and re-signed him the ensuing summer. In his first full season with the Spurs, Mills averaged 11.3 mpg and 5.1 ppg in 58 games.
When the Spurs didn’t re-sign long-distance shooting guard Gary Neal last summer, the 180-pound, quick-footed Mills ascended into the rotation.
“He can score,” Popovich said. “He’s not afraid to shoot it, that’s for sure. That’s how he plays, he’s always aggressive, that’s what he does. He’s not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he’s going to shoot it, that’s what his skill is.”
Logging a career-high 18.3 mpg in 80 games this season, Mills, making $1.1 million in his final season under contract, is averaging 10.2 ppg and converting 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (134-for-315) — both better marks than Neal produced last season.
Mills’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%, adjusted for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) is 59.4 percent, the highest in the league among reserve guards who average at least 15.0 mpg.
However, he’s entering an all new ballgame now. His postseason experience consists of scarce minutes, a total of 79 in his career. Is he prepared to produce as he has during the regular season in his first playoff pressure-cooker?
“I don’t doubt him,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s very young and doesn’t have that much experience, but he’s played big games for Australia, and in the Olympics. The guy can score. The guy is a scorer and I don’t see a scenario where pressure can really bother him. We trust him and rely on him, too.”
Mills is fully indoctrinated in the San Antonio way. Popovich last week provided his seal of approval.
“He’s ready,” Popovich said. “He’s not a 21-year-old rookie. He’s played all over the world in all kinds of situations. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”