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That was Patty Mills?

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - MILLSWhen Patty Mills made a floating layup with just under five minutes to play in the fourth quarter, giving the San Antonio Spurs a 96-86 lead, one Trail Blazers fan threw up his hands and shouted, “Are you kidding me? That’s Patty Mills?”

Indeed, the Patty Mills who showed up at Moda Center on Wednesday night was not the same player Blazer fans knew when he played for Portland.

That point guard was beloved far more for his laid-back Aussie persona than his play on the court. That player averaged 2.6 points per game in the 2009-10 season averaging 5.5 in 2010-11.

The player who showed up Wednesday night was a force, and the Blazers had no answer for him.

Playing extra minutes because All-Star guard Tony Parker was out with injuries, Mills scored a team-high 29 points, dropped 13 points in the fourth quarter and led the Spurs to a 111-109 win.

“Patty was spectacular,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s a tough cover, he’s a great competitor, he’s a real committed player. Mentally, he’s been making great decisions.”

Blazers fans remember Mills as a wet-behind-the-ears bench player. The 6-0, 185-pounder has been having a very strong season, though, averaging 9.7 points per game. Now 25, Mills has matured as a player in large part because he has been afforded the opportunity to play on a veteran team.

“I’ve learned from such great guys,” he said. “I’m in a very fortunate spot where I’m on a team with three future Hall of Famers and a great coach. I’ve been able to sit back a little bit, watch and learn, and now that I get a little bit of an opportunity, I can put that into play.

“I understand my role on the team and where you can get shots in the offense, where you can do stuff defensively. It’s understanding the system, understanding your teammates and your coaches.

"And once you have a good understanding of that, you tend to get a little more confidence.”

Popovich said Mills is a very different than he was last season, when he averaged 6.7 points and 1.5 assists.

“He came in this year with a totally different body and mind-set,” Popovich said. “He didn't want to sit. Physically, he's changed himself. You can see the quickness and speed. And he's playing a lot more under control, not turning the ball over. That's been important for us with the decision-making process. I don't see a more improved player in the league, or anybody who has come off the bench and done more for his team.”

The Spurs will be depending on Mills heavily over the coming games. Popovich has said that Parker will be out “for the foreseeable future,” for a “variety of maladies.”

Mills is not vain enough to believe he can fill be Tony Parker.

“You can’t fill Tony Parker’s shoes,” he said. “Everyone knows that. But if you do it together, you can get close to it. We’ve just got to do it together as a team and maintain while he sits out.”

Mills' performance on Wednesday was the difference between the Spurs winning and losing.

He began slowly. After coming in off the bench, he scored just two points in the first quarter. He heated up as the game moved on, though, finishing the night 13 of 26 from the floor — which matched the most made baskets off the bench in the NBA this season.

“He came off pick-and-rolls hard and kept raising up,” Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said. “He made a lot of jumpers. We knew he would take jumpers, but he got to the rim a little bit, he started hitting floaters and he was just in a good rhythm.”

Nicolas Batum guarded Mills most of the night. The two have played against each other since they were 15, when Mills was on the Australian junior national team and Batum was on France's junior squad.

“It was just like it was when we were 15” Mills said. “It was fun.”

Popovich said Batum's defense prevented Mills from getting 30 points. With just under eight minutes left in the game, Mills cut into the lane and rolled a layup off the glass. Batum was there to knock it away and was credited for a clean block, but Popovich thought it was goaltending.

“It hit the backboard for sure,” Popovich said. “But that happens. Refs don’t get every call right. We all make mistakes.”

The most points Mills had ever scored in Portland was 12, against the Charlotte Hornets on March 5, 2011. He smiled widely when asked how it felt to have played his best game in Portland.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said.