The NBA season tips off on Wednesday (AEST) with drama, as ever, guaranteed. In a two-part series here on The Roar, we analyse the contenders and favourites from the two conferences, starting in the west.
It’s the 2014 NBA Finals and the San Antonio Spurs are trying to get revenge on the Miami Heat after falling to them in the previous year.
Ray Allen had ripped their hearts out with a series-saving three-pointer with five seconds to go in a close-out game, which everyone thought was over. The Spurs are now up three games to one and if they win this game the series is over and they avenge last year’s loss.
From the beginning of the series, the Spurs have played some of the most beautiful, team-based basketball the league has ever seen, with every player making their own contributions throughout. In game five, it was the six-foot-nothing-on-a-good-day Australian Patty Mills’ turn to light up the scoreboard and ultimately deliver the final blow to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.
Drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009 with the 55th overall pick, Mills had achieved his lifelong dream of making it to the best basketball league in the world, despite being awfully undersized and non-American.
He was a solid role player for the Blazers and then the Spurs, but going into the 2013-14 season he began training extra hard. After being dubbed ‘Fatty Mills’ by his coach Gregg Popovich and barely playing in the previous year’s finals, Mills put in the work and increased his statistics across the board.
But despite raising his game, no one thought he’d ever have such an impact in one of the most important games in basketball. ABC News Digital Sports Reporter Jon Healy recalls watching game five.
“Having watched him in the NBA for a few years I think he obviously performed relatively well for Portland and the Spurs, but I think this game was a little bit of an arrival for Patty on the biggest stage,” he said.
After only putting up three points in the first half, Mills erupted in the third quarter with 14 points, including four three-pointers, while also playing hard defence. This really was the coup de grace for Miami. They led 22-6 at the beginning of the game, but the Spurs clawed back and evened the game, and Mills’ scoring clinic ultimately put the game out of reach.
“That third quarter and that game in general was so insane. The Heat gave the Spurs their best shot early on but that quarter from Patty was sort of the final nail in the coffin of that series,” Healy said.
Mills ended with a total of 51 points across the five games, in comparison to the four he scored in the year prior.
“That NBA finals showed me how amazing those Spurs were as a team, and if they’re the best system in the NBA and Patty is such a big part of that, and still is, then it makes you realise how valued he actually is by some of the smartest minds in the game,” Healy said.
“It made you think it’s not just blind jingoism that makes you love Patty Mills, he actually is this good and this important.”
This determined performance, from a scoring perspective, may be the biggest impact an Australian NBA player has ever had in helping his team lift up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, especially after losing so gut-wrenchingly the previous year.
“Those 2013 finals were just so brutal for the Spurs and to bounce back the way they did so emphatically was very impressive,” Healy said.
Mills’ resume doesn’t end there. He has also displayed a number of masterclass performances for the Australian national team, the Boomers, where he seems to turn into a whole different beast consistently.
Despite his Finals heroics being six years ago now, just last year he willed the Boomers to their first ever win over Team USA, in 55 years of competing, in a World Cup exhibition match. Mills put up 30 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
“He has always been a guy who stands so tall for Australia and plays with so much pride for his country,” Healy said.
He has consistently been the best player in his Olympic sides, finishing with the highest points per game, across all teams, in London in 2012, and second-highest in Rio in 2016.
And he has no plans of slowing down, Mills told the Australian Olympic Committee on a live panel for their Wellbeing Week what he was most looking forward to at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“A gold medal. And I say that in all seriousness. It is what you dream of as a kid, and it is what you continue to dream of as an adult,” he said.
Mills is one of Australia’s most beloved athletes, and is an inspiration to young Australian basketballers who want to one day follow in his footsteps and make it to the big leagues. Healy says Mills has provided hope and has proven it can be done.
“In a way he has created a pathway, he’s only six foot, and has worked his ass off to get to the position he’s in. He’s sort of the ideal Australian athlete in many ways,” Healy said.
“He’s very aware of his impact and I think that’s really important. He doesn’t get self-important about it but there is no point in Patty denying that he is a role model and a public face of Australian basketball in a lot of ways. That’s something to aspire to, using your platform for good like that.”
As Mills gets older, he will look back on his achievements with pride. As he enters his mid-30s he may start to think about hanging up the boots, but he knows he still has a bit left in the tank and a lot to offer for Australian basketball going forward.
“It will be a sad day when he retires or if the Spurs trade him because he’s been such a vital part of that Spurs system for so long, and the fact that he’s still there after all these years really does say something about his ability and his character,” Healy said.