Patty Mills' Long Way Back
By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Underneath the tangle of kinesiology tape on Patty Mills’ right shoulder was a torn rotator cuff, or as Mills would call it, “a test of character.”
The Spurs’ sparkplug played most of the 2013-14 season with a nagging injury in his shooting shoulder, but he always looked past the pain.
Maybe it was the natural toughness of someone who grew up playing Australian Rules Football. Maybe he knew how much the Spurs needed his contribution in their run to the NBA title.
But once the victory parade was over and the pain didn’t go away, the torn tendons and tissue were something a surgeon needed to fix. More than a year later, Mills has taken a long road to get back to feeling like himself again.
“It was a long process,” he said. “There was a point after the surgery where that doubt comes in and you think things can go either way. I questioned myself on whether I’d be able to shoot the same. But that’s where mental strength and trust in those taking care of you come in.”
Two weeks into the 2015-16 season, a fully healthy Mills is already making an impact. He is averaging 8.5 points per game and has made 13 of 27 3-pointers (48.1 percent), and his 21 minutes per game would be a career high if it extends through the season.
The long way back for Mills began seventeen months ago.
Mills had a breakout season with the Spurs in 2013-14, averaging 10.2 points per game and leading the team with 135 made 3-pointers in the regular season.
In the last two games of the NBA Finals, Mills averaged 15.5 points and made nine 3-pointers.
Nobody knew at the time how gutsy the performance was, given the severity of his injury.
A week after Mills lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, an MRI revealed the torn rotator cuff and showed Mills shouldn’t have been lifting anything at all.
The timetable for his return was set at six to seven months. When he brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Australia, he did it with his arm in a sling.
He missed the Spurs’ 2014 training camp and the first 31 games of the regular season. When Mills returned on Dec. 28, 2014, he wasn’t at 100 percent.
“When he came back to us in January,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “you’re nervous and you don’t have the confidence. You don’t want to extend your arm, you don’t want to get in certain situations. You don’t play with the same ferocity or abandon. He feels whole now. There’s a big difference.”
Mills said the 2014-15 season may have been the biggest challenge of his career.
He averaged 6.9 points per game for the season and still made 34.1 percent of his 3-pointers (62 of 182). To Mills, it was a season spent trying in vain to help his teammates while knowing he was capable of much more.
“It’s fair to say that I wasn’t at my full strength,” Mills said. “When I reviewed film at the end of the season, I wasn’t happy at all. I didn’t live up to my level of play.”
Once the offseason began in May, Mills approached his time with the driven focus of getting his shoulder to 100 percent.
He said he essentially did his rehab all over again, spending two hours on physiotherapy every day.
The summer had some other developments that might have served as fair excuses for Mills to take a cheat day. He took a detour to Los Angeles in July to recruit an old teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, to join the Spurs. In August, Mills helped Australia qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games by playing in the FIBA Oceania Championships and leading the Boomers past New Zealand.
Mills called those momentous events “other things” in relation to his health.
“The No. 1 focus was my shoulder,” “When other things happen, you have to be agile and be able to keep that focus. Those were great moments, but there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t thinking about getting healthy first.”
Now, Mills is at full strength for the first time in two years.
The ferocity required to fly around the court at Mills’ frantic pace is back. At the Spurs’ open gym in September, Tim Duncan said Mills was the star.
Instead of constantly worrying about his body, he’s been able to focus on his development. He’s made up for the time he missed while recovering in 2014.
“There’s nothing lingering anymore,” he said. “There’s nothing in the back of my head. So you can lock in and concentrate on strengths and weaknesses, and it really gives you an extra edge.”
Mills said one area he hopes to make strides in this season is leadership, as he wants to follow the path of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
He thanked the Spurs’ trainers, medical staff and coaches for helping his recovery and said he’s thrilled to show Spurs fans a healthy version of himself.
He hasn’t just learned about his health and his body during his recovery. He said his biggest challenges were in trusting the process even during setbacks, pushing his willpower and overcoming self-doubt.
Seventeen months after surgery, Patty Mills can say he has passed his test of character. Fully intact.