When the Nets signed Patty Mills this offseason, he was seen as a luxury.
But with Kyrie Irving missing and James Harden playing his way back into form, Mills has become an outright necessity.
“He’s a winner,” head coach Steve Nash summed up succinctly. “He plays the right way, he’s experienced. Obviously he’s skilled, but he just brings a great feel to the game, with [or] without the ball. And defensively, he makes our team communicate better. He organizes us [on] both sides of the ball.
“So, he just brings a lot to the table, and he’s a great addition to our team.”
He’s an addition the Nets frankly couldn’t do without right now.
They pried Mills away from the Spurs with the mid-level exception. The team-friendly two-year, $12 million contract was less than half of the $13.5 million he made with San Antonio last season, and one pundit referred to the deal as the “steal of the offseason” in the NBA.
Mills is proving that right, on both ends of the court and in the locker room.
“Just try to make an impact on the game somehow, whether it’s on the defensive or offensive end,” Mills said. “That’s always been something that I’ve hung my hat on. Offensively if it’s not the night, then go make a play defensively and get after [it], dive for loose balls, create a charge, make an impact that way. An all-around mentality is the thing I’ve tried to have always.”
The veteran guard will come into Wednesday’s game versus the Heat averaging 14.5 points on .525 shooting and a white-hot .640 from deep. He’s tops on the Nets in 3-point shooting, second in plus-minus (+7.5) and third in scoring.
His professional attitude, attention to detail and team-first demeanor, are all harder to quantify — but easy to see.
“Professionalism. Just a true pro, through-and-through,” Kevin Durant said. “Just how he approaches his craft every day is an inspiring thing to anybody, especially when you know the story where he comes from.
“Just having that energy around every day is amazing. Beating his chest into the crowd, making timely plays underneath the basket, getting steals, just playing with energy. We’re going to need that from him.”
The need is far greater than the Nets could have imagined.
Irving hasn’t played due to his refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Harden is shooting just .364 and has posted a minus-7.5.
Even Joe Harris will come into the Heat clash at a pedestrian .345 clip from 3-point range.
To say Mills’ hot shooting has been vital is understating the facts.
“It’s been amazing. Patty makes tough shots,” Bruce Brown said. “I remember guarding him when he was on the Spurs and it was hell. He comes off screens extremely fast and can still shoot the ball 100 mph. So just a great player, great dude to have.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been shocking. There was a prevailing feeling around the league that once freed from the Spurs’ structured system Mills could thrive.
The Tokyo Olympics proved it.
After Mills scored 22 points to lead Australia to a July 12 exhibition win over Team USA, he followed that with 15 in the semifinal rematch. His 42 points in the bronze medal game set an Olympic record for the medal contest, and showed what he could do in a system suited to his talents.
“We’re putting the ball in Patty’s hands,” Australia coach Brian Goorjian told his team.
More than expected, the Nets have done the same.
Mills poured in 21 points Monday in the Nets’ win over Washington, including an ankle-breaking one-dribble stepback 3-pointer that sent Aaron Holiday stumbling.
With Durant collapsing defenses, Mills has been aggressive in hunting his shots. And when he has taken those corner 3s, he has made them.
“A mindset change. I think that’s always the case. Being able to assert myself for a little bit more,” Mills said. “That’s also the thing of getting comfortable and figuring it out on the fly each and every day.”
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