SAN ANTONIO — The first time I saw Patty Mills was in the summer of 2008. We were in Shanghai and his Australian national team was playing a pre-Olympic exhibition against Team USA, a roster that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
That summer together had an impact on the Big Three eventually getting together with the Miami Heat. It’s a big reason why they’re here in San Antonio for The Finals, trying to win their third straight championship. It’s also a reason why Mills and the Spurs are here too.
Playing without Andrew Bogut in that exhibition game, the Boomers spread the floor and allowed an unknown point guard, who had just completed his freshman season at St. Mary’s College in California, to go to work. Mills proceeded to dart through the U.S. defense, causing problems for some of the best players in the world. Against the likes of Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, this 19-year old was making a name for himself. The U.S. won the game, but it was its toughest test of a five-game exhibition slate. A couple weeks later, the two teams met again in the Olympic quarterfinals and Mills scored 20 points in just 28 minutes.
The U.S. men eliminated Australia in those quarterfinals, but the two countries met again in the women’s gold medal game, and both mens teams were there for support. The U.S. men, about 15 hours from playing their own gold medal game against Spain, were all business. The Australian men … not so much. To show his support, Mills was wearing an Australian women’s uniform. They’ve since changed to a more standard tank-and-shorts combo, but back then, the Opals wore a form-fitting, spandex, one-piece outfit. So it was … interesting … to see it worn by a guy.
Less than a year later, Mills was selected with the 55th pick in the 2009 Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. And here he is now, ready to make an impact on The Finals.
Mills played a total of 31 minutes in last year’s postseason. The only Finals games he played in were Games 2 and 3, both blowouts. This year, he’ll have a much larger role, especially if Tony Parker isn’t 100 percent.
It was after last year’s Finals that Mills realized what he needed to do to get that larger role.
“First and foremost,” Mills said Wednesday, “I had to earn the trust [of the Spurs’ coaches] and earn the right to play. For me, it started with my fitness. My strength is my speed and my quickness. And I thought that if I could get in the best shape of my life, without even talking about any basketball skills yet, everything would kind of fall into place.
“So I went right back to basics, and it was almost like a lifestyle change. I was really strict about what I did in the kitchen, in the gym, and in the weight room. And it really changed a lot of things. From then, I worked back up to eventually getting back on the basketball court and specific stuff there.”
With the Spurs’ second unit, Mills shares ball-handling responsibilities with Manu Ginobili, but he’s still a big factor that the Heat have to worry about. Along with that quickness comes a much-improved jumper. He’s a ball-handler that can pull up at any time and make you pay for going under a screen. And if he catches fire, he can change a game.
Mills is one of the reasons the Spurs are a better team than they were a year ago. He went from towel-waiver to impact player.
”We wouldn’t be here without him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He was great off the bench for us this year and always gave us a good jolt of energy in several different ways.”
The Spurs wouldn’t be here without him and Mills wouldn’t be here without those two games against the U.S. in 2008. Had he not shown that he can hang with the best, he may have gone undrafted, and he may not have realized that his dream was a legitimate possibility.
“It was a massive learning experience for me,” Mills said Wednesday, “To get that experience at such a young age, it really enlightened me on how hard I needed to work to get there.
“It gave me the realization of ‘Hey, I think I can compete with them and I think I can play in the NBA. I just need to keep at it and keep working.’ That game gave me the self-belief that I can play in the NBA.”