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Why Patty Mills is playing the best basketball of his career
Patty Mills has never been more important to the San Antonio Spurs.
In a season where their famed infrastructure has been tested like never before, the Spurs are asking more of Mills. They have required more minutes. Gregg Popovich has asked for more leadership. Squint hard enough and you will even notice the FIBA version of this Bala spurting out, supplanting the role player who has found a home in Texas.
There was no better illustration of Mills’ transformation than the end of San Antonio’s latest victory over the Phoenix Suns.
The Spurs, playing 24 hours after a signature win against the Boston Celtics, jumped out to an early 19 point lead. They had a Devin Booker-less Suns line-up dead to rights midway through the third quarter, before the most uncharacteristic of things happened: the Spurs squandered their advantage to one of the worst teams in basketball.
Such a breakdown is virtually unheard of in San Antonio, although these are not usual times. Kawhi Leonard, the pre-season MVP favourite, has yet to play a single minute of basketball this season. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Hall of Fame bound backcourt duo, had the night off in Phoenix. Danny Green and Pau Gasol were afforded the same treatment, as this was the second half of a back-to-back. San Antonio was facing winning time without their usual beacons; those who have underpinned the most artistic of NBA dynasties.
Somewhat remarkably, Mills was the longest tenured Spur to take the court in Phoenix. Just think about that for a moment. The pudgy little kid who once drew the ire of Popovich was, in this moment, his most experienced lieutenant. With four minutes remaining and scores tied, San Antonio needed Mills to take over the offence. Not in a LeBron James, everyone get out of my way manner. No, that would never fly in Popovich’s egalitarian system. It is honestly beyond the reach of the Australian. This was a more subdued takeover. One that should look familiar to anyone who has watched The Boomers.
Mills was running the show and probing the defence. There were drive and kick dimes to open shooters, transition mastery, hockey assists on LaMarcus Aldridge dunks and, of course, backbreaking three pointers. With 20 seconds remaining, Mills found Bryn Forbes for the decisive bucket as San Antonio secured a lead they would not surrender. Mills’ final two free throws iced the game and punctuated San Antonio’s third win in four nights, their eighth victory in nine games overall. Another victory and another impressive performance for the now veteran point guard.
The Spurs have long relied upon Mills, so the dependence is not a foreign concept. Mills’ offence has fuelled the most successful iterations of their dominance this decade. Each passing year has brought advancements in his talent and additional responsibility within the Spurs system. Although, there has never been a bigger task than right now.
See Mills has historically been an Energiser Bunny for San Antonio. He cut his teeth as a reserve spark plug who could lethally pick and choose moments within the construct of a team full of stars. That requirement is now rendered useless.
Mills has logged the third most minutes for San Antonio this season, placing behind Aldridge and Green. He is now a workhorse playing 25.5 minutes per game. That total is easily the highest of his career and there has been a clear by-product. Right now, he isn’t just the efficient NBA sharpshooter. That version of Mills has been replaced by a minute absorber who is charged with controlling the team; not just his personal arsenal.
Mills’ shooting efficiency has slipped in the face of an increased workload. This is currently the second worst shooting season of his nine year NBA career. A similar trend is identifiable in many other statistical measures. San Antonio’s net rating increases with Mills off the floor, marking the first time since 2012 that the Spurs are, quantitatively, a better team without him. Mills’ impact has never been greater. yet his statistic profile has dropped off considerably.
The Australian has long been a statistical darling and that adds irony to the current numbers. Analytics were once the only method of truly authenticating his impact to the Spurs. Times have now changed. Without their MVP candidate in Leonard, there is only one statistic that matters as San Antonio hold down the fort and that is the number of wins collected.
Individual statistics have never told the full story for Popovich coached teams, and this truism is only enhanced right now. Everything starts anew when Leonard returns (he is hoping to make his season debut tomorrow against the Dallas Mavericks). Roles will be re-allocated, usage disbursed, and if we assume full health for the remainder of the season, many of the line-ups that have limited San Antonio will be put out to pasture.
Also remember that, according to the numbers, San Antonio were a better defensive team with Leonard off the floor last season. No amount of numeric evidence can make that a reality, just as no singular figure can downplay the importance of Mills right now.
The Spurs currently hold a record of 19-8, placing them third in the Western Conference. They are on track to win 58 games. They are doing what they always do. But things are different this time around. This has been a patchwork job without the best two-way player in basketball. Mills has been fundamental in San Antonio’s success because he is the best point guard at Popovich’s disposal.
That comment stands even when Parker regains full fitness. The Spurs offence has more energy and purpose when the Australian supplants the Frenchman. Mills plays with speed, but also finds the perfect balance as he methodically controls the offence. He has learnt from Parker in this regard. Weaving through defences and finding a reliable mid-range jumper is something that made Parker an All-Star. Mills can now pull off the perfect imitation.
When it comes to defence, there is no comparison. Mills remains susceptible to shifty ball handlers. Try as he might, and effort is almost always present, Mills cannot deter the more aggressive guards in the NBA, although his intellect makes him serviceable against most off guards. The recent game against Boston was a perfect illustration.
Mills was no match for Kyrie Irving (not many are, to be fair), but held his own against secondary options like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Such competency at the defensive end is now a step too far for Parker. At 35 years of age, he has lost the athleticism required to chase around NBA calibre guards.
Dejounte Murray oozes potential, but is still prone to the brain farts expected from someone with only 65 NBA games under his belt. The same can be said for the slew of combo guards - Bryn Forbes, Brandon Paul and Derrick White – currently receiving minutes. Each has shown promise in their own unique way, but all are trainees at the NBA level. They may even start over Mills, just as Forbes and Paul did in Phoenix, but when it came time to fend off those pesky Suns, it was Patty time. Mills finished the game with 20 points and San Antonio left victorious.
Mills is averaging just 9.6 points and 3.5 assists per game, but he is playing the most impactful basketball of his career. In the same vein, the Spurs are just a team with a middling offence and a collection of spare part players, but they are right where they need to be. Sitting among the NBA’s elite thanks to their Australian point guard.
Full Highlights against Phoenix