Patrick “Patty” Mills at Canberra Stadium with the NBA trophy last year. Photo: Rohan ThomsonNBA championship-winner Patrick Mills says an injury interrupted season has lit the fire for his dreams of winning back-to-back titles with the San Antonio Spurs.
Mills is confident he can shake any lingering rust after shoulder surgery to be a force as the Spurs begin their playoff charge against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday Australian time.
The Canberra junior also hopes a record number of Australians in the playoffs will help spark interest in basketball again as the NBL continues to battle the woes of teams being forced out of the competition.
Mills had major shoulder surgery after the Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the NBA finals last year, forcing him out for the first half of their title defence.
He managed to score double-figure points just five times since making a comeback, but it has not dented his confidence.
“This is business time now, it’s time to go to work and be that extra bit focused and extra bit determined for the playoffs,” Mills told Fairfax Media from his San Antonio home.
“We’ve had to overcome a lot of different obstacles this year compared to last year. It’s ignited the fire a little bit more because we know what we want to get done.
“I’ve had some ups and downs myself, it’s exactly what I expected. I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing and I’d have to find my place again after the shoulder injury.
“There were no surprises. The biggest thing was having to hang in there and grind it out. It’s been a test of character again, but I enjoyed the challenge.”
Mills scored 15 points in 10 minutes in the Spurs’ loss against New Orleans in the last regular season game last week.
It saw the Spurs slip from the second seed to No. 6, setting up a showdown with the Clippers to stay in the championship race.
Mills, 26, has played 51 games this year and averages almost seven points per game, a drop from 10.2 points per outing last season.
He is confident he can still add valuable spark from the bench, similar to the impact he had that helped lift the Spurs to the title with a championship-defining run of 17 points in 17 minutes against the Heat last year.
Mills is in the first year of a three-season deal with the Spurs after signing a new $12 million contract after winning the title.
Coach Gregg Popovich said in a Sports Illustrated feature on Mills that: “It wasn’t even a question [re-signing Mills]. Obviously he can shoot the basketball and has a lot of energy.
“But he’s beloved on this team for his enthusiasm, his kindness, his understated gravitas. As long as I’m here, he’s going to be here. Unless we can’t afford him.”
The Sports Illustrated feature gave basketball fans an insight into Mills’ upbringing as an indigenous Australian and the history of his mother, Yvonne, and father, Benny.
But Mills said this season has been about finding his place in the NBA.
“I think I have definitely found my place here and what I need to do and what I expect and what they expect,” he said.
“It’s perfect at the moment. The confidence is still there, this year I’ve understood the mind is a lot stronger and I’m finding new ways to find out how strong it is.
“It’s all mental. You have games when you miss shots and when you make shots. But knowing you’re here for a reason and you’re an NBA basketballer helps. My game isn’t defined by points, it’s more. That’s what I’ve learnt.
“The Clippers are a huge challenge for us. They go deep, they’re young and athletic. They’re feeding off each other.”
Five Australians will line up in the NBA playoffs – Mills, teammate Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut.
”It’s great for Australian basketball and I hope people back home understand how hard it is for Aussies to get in this situation,” Mills said. “It’s a good reason for a lot of Aussies to get behind basketball over here.”
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