Patrick Mills was surrounded by 20,000 screaming basketball fans and in view of millions more on TV, but he was in a lonely place.
At that moment, the Canberra-born point guard had an epiphany.
He had had enough of being anchored at the end of the San Antonio Spurs’ bench.
It was time for change.
“It happened just out there,” Mills, sitting in the visitors’ locker room last week inside the Staples Center indoor stadium, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, told AAP.
“It was last year in the first round of the playoffs here in LA against the Lakers.”
Mills’ San Antonio Spurs were playing the Lakers last April in the first round of the NBA playoffs and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had 13 players at his disposal.
In game one, Popovich used 12 players, with Mills the player left on the bench in his tracksuit.
In game two Mills, again, was slapped with the dreaded “DNP (did not play) – Coach’s Decision” on the stat sheet.
Mills had been lauded as the NBA’s ultimate bench player, with a repertoire of towel waving moves and the first to high-five teammates as they returned from the court for time outs, but during that Lakers series he decided he wanted more and the Spurs deserved more from him.
“Looking back on that year, there were opportunities there for me to grab a back up point guard position and I didn’t,” Mills said.
“I thought to myself, `I think I should be playing, but I need to earn the right to do so’.”
The Spurs rolled through the 2012/13 playoffs, crushing the Lakers 4-0, wearing down Andrew Bogut’s Golden State Warriors 4-2 in the second round, and manhandling the Memphis Grizzlies in the western conference finals before losing to the Miami Heat in an epic seven-game battle in the finals.
Mills played sparingly, and only in minutes when the game was decided and Spurs’ starting guard Tony Parker and back-ups Gary Neal, Nando de Colo and Cory Joseph were rested.
While NBA players looked to the off-season for a rest, Mills went to work.
In August, during the two-game FIBA Oceania Championship series between Australia and New Zealand played in Auckland and Canberra, the new Mills was on show, leading the Boomers to a 2-0 win.
Days later, when Mills returned to San Antonio for the 2013/14 season, the great taskmaster Popovich liked what he saw.
Physically, Mills was lean.
Mentally, the often erratic Aussie, was wiser and disciplined.
When Parker was felled by injury, Popovich looked to Mills as the first option to lead the Spurs.
“Patty was spectacular,” Popovich said after Mills scored a team-high 29 points in a win against the Portland Trailblazers last month.
“He’s a tough cover, he’s a great competitor, he’s a real committed player.
“Mentally, he’s been making great decisions.”
In 2012/13 Mills played in just 58 games, averaged five points and 11 minutes per game, with most accumulated in the dying, meaningless minutes.
This season, with the Spurs boasting the best record in the NBA, Mills has played in all 70 games, is averaging almost 19 minutes and 10 points a game.
“That’s what you want play basketball for,” the 25-year-old, who was drafted by the Trailblazers in 2009, said.
“You want to play in the crunch time minutes and the crunch time plays and be able to deliver.”
Mills is focused on the Spurs and their march to the playoffs, but his $US2.22 million ($A2.4 million), two-year contract with the team expires at the end of the season.
The former ultimate bench player would love to stay with the Spurs, but the new, improved Mills is now a tantalising prospect for NBA clubs shopping for a point-scoring guard.