In what may be the ultimate evergreen NBA take, the obituaries were being signed once more for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. After a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on December 5, the Spurs had slipped to 11-14 on the season, losing 12 of their past 17 contests.
Not only were they losing, they were being manhandled in a way we've haven't quite witnessed through their golden era, with five 20-plus point losses highlighting their woes. But of course, it is San Antonio we are talking about, and they have now rattled off a streak of seven wins in nine games, with all the victories coming by double-digit margins.
They now sit ninth in the Western Conference standings, just 2.o games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, holders of the fourth seed.
It's been a changing of the guard for the Spurs, with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green traded to Toronto in the offseason, while Tony Parker signed in Charlotte. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have retired, leaving just two long-time members in the organisation that had previously been a picture of stability for the best part of 20 seasons.
The last two standing?
Popovich and Patty Mills.
Following one of the Spurs earlier blowout losses, via ESPN, Mills reacted passionately to the result with some spirited comments about the responsibility he and teammates have to the organisation."Guys feel embarrassed and deflated, and rightfully so," guard Patty Mills said.
"It's the big picture. It's who we represent when we put these jerseys on. It's who we play for. It's much bigger than that, and we need to understand that we are here just for a short time amongst this organisation that will be here for a lot longer than we are. We've got to take pride in that."
Mills, now in his eighth season with the Spurs has morphed from bench gunner, into respected leader and veteran of a squad building towards yet another playoffs berth. The impact Mills has in the locker room is not lost on his future Hall of Fame coach, who couldn't speak highly enough of the Australian guard when the Spurs visited Milwaukee last month.
"He’s our inspiration. He’s an ultimate warrior," Popovich said. "He gives everything he’s got all the time. He feels responsible to everyone and he’s always pumping everybody else up. He’s just a wonderful teammate. He’s a huge part of everything we are."
Highlighting Mills' commitment to the cause is his somewhat reduced role on the floor this season. When young star Dejounte Murray went down with a preseason ACL injury, many assumed Mills would slot straight into the starting line-up and break his career-high mark of 36 starts last season.
That couldn't have been further off the mark. Mills is yet to start a single game in 2018-19, and has actually taken a slight hit in his minutes per game from last season. Despite what many people would assume was a setback, Mills just continues to plow on at his usual rate, averaging 9.1 points a game while drilling 40 percent of his 3-point tries.
Mills is a vital cog in the Spurs machine, and is the ultimate example of the old basketball adage: 'It doesn't matter who starts the game, it matters who finishes it.'
Popovich has ultimate trust in Mills. He often leaves late game plays and shots in the hands of the Boomers veteran, a role that he has grown into over the past few seasons.
Mills' ability in the clutch came to the fore at Staples Center earlier in the season, when he drilled a mid-range shot in OT to secure a big win over LeBron James and the Lakers.
Overall, making shots is Mills' game, and he sits third on the Spurs franchise record list for 3-point makes with 754. Mills sits 205 makes behind Danny Green for second on the list, while Manu Ginobili sits on top, 741 triples ahead.
Mills is contracted in San Antonio for a further two seasons after this. If he continues to knock down shots at his current pace, he will comfortably climb into second on the franchise list. Not bad for a guy taken with the 55th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
The Spurs are climbing back into the playoff conversation in a typically congested Western Conference picture, if they are to remain in contention for home-court, you should expect Patty Mills to be featuring heavily in their success.