Paul Millsap is a believer.
He was before the Denver Nuggets came up on the wrong side of a four overtime marathon Friday night against the Portland Trial Blazers, the sort of emotionally draining game that could break a young team.
And he was after the Nuggets bounced back 36 hours later and reclaimed home court advantage in their Western Conference semifinal with arguably the most impressive win in a season filled with them.
Living through the journey of missing out on a playoff berth last season on the final night of the 2017-18 regular season to earning the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase this season, Millsap said he had no choice but to believe.
In his teammates, the mission and the resiliency, heart and toughness of a group that has had to learn how to compete at the highest level in real time, given that their catalysts — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — had no previous playoff experience.
Millsap exuded a quiet confidence that the Nuggets would head home for Game 5 of this series, Tuesday at Pepsi Center (10:30 ET, TNT), in a good place.
Instead of needing a win to stave off elimination, the Nuggets are in a position to press their own advantage — they were a NBA-best 34-7 at home this season — with a trip to the conference finals within reach.
As the most experienced member of a gritty group, a bunch that’s already been tested by a seven-game grind in its first round series against the San Antonio Spurs, Millsap said he had to lead by example with the season on the line.
Murray was spectacular, scoring a game-high 34 points and going 11-for-11 from the free-throw line, including six straight down the stretch to seal the Game 5 win. Jokic was equally spectacular, finishing with his fourth triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists) of this postseason.
Overshadowed but just as critical was the 21 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and steadying influence Millsap provided. He spoke with NBA.com’ s Sekou Smith about the Nuggets, his journey and more with a monumental Game 5 looming:
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: How do you know when you get on a team like this, with so many young pieces still developing, that you might potentially have something special like what you guys have put together this season?
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets: Personnel. It’s about the personnel. The teammates you have, we have a great group of guys, and anytime you have a great group of guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, there is an opportunity there. That’s been there all along, honestly. You could sense it from the start we had after missing out on the playoffs last season. So hopefully, we’ll keep this team together.
SS: In your last two stops as a free agent you were a part of a significant turnaround in Atlanta (60-win season and trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2016) and now this turnaround and run with these young Nuggets. What is it with you and the right timing and the right fit?
PM: I value timing. And all of these decisions are based on that and where I was in my career at that time and where I wanted my career to go. So making the right decisions is always important. And then just being the right fit culturally, you know, looking at a team and knowing it’s a team where you can grow, that’s unselfish and willing to do whatever it takes to win, those are all things that have been important to me and things I examined when I was coming up on those free agent situations and trying to make my decisions. I don’t care how long you’ve been in this league, you always have to be growing and improving. That’s critical, your evolution as a professional and as man responsible for your own career.
SS: How did you tackle that evolution? You came into this league during a different era, as an undersized power forward known for your rebounding and toughness but have become one of the more underrated two-way players in the league. How difficult was it to dive in and reinvent yourself over these years time and again?
PM: It wasn’t too difficult because I was willing to do it. I was willing to put in the time and put in the work. I’m always evolving as a person, so to translate that over to basketball, it wasn’t tough at all. The game has changed, and with the game constantly in that state, you have to change with it accordingly. I’m always the go-with-the-flow sort of person anyway, so with the game moving this way or that way, I’m going to go with it.
SS: As young as this Denver core group was when you joined them before the 2017-18 season, did it appeal to you or was it even obvious to you just how big of a mentorship role you’d signed up for this crew? Because that’s a different burden for a player who is in the midst of the prime of his career, making All-Star games and doing the things you were doing.
PM: It’s been somewhat of a challenge for myself, knowing when to and when not to be that guy. Like you said, in the prime of my career I’m still trying to establish myself and reach the goals that I’ve set for myself, knowing that whatever situation you go into there will be some sacrifices that have to be made. I’ve never been a selfish person and I know that if I do the right things as a vet and make sure I help these guys get to where they need to be, it helps me out as well. So I don’t too much worry about myself in that regard, with my game and what I have gong on. Because at the end of the day, production is production and it will always show up. So I don’t get too focused on the numbers or on myself. It’s a team game for me, always has been and always will be.
You know people probably don’t realize this but I lived in Denver for 10 years as a kid. I was familiar with the city and what it had to offer.
SS: You’ve been paired with other of the league’s best big men before when you and Al Horford were making Eastern Conference All-Star teams together. But when you have a young guy with the talents of Jokic, a guy being talked about in that Kia MVP conversation, it would seem that’s on another level altogether, no?
PM: He’s such a smart player. A lot of things I don’t even have to say. He gets it. I try to help him as much as I can but not to be over the top with it. I try to lead by example every single day at practice. I come in here with a get-better attitude. But with that, with him being so young, he helps me and teaches me as well. Seeing him and watching him, a lot of things that he does and how he studies the game is unbelievable. It works both ways. I’m appreciative of him being on this team and I hope he, as well, of me being the position I’m in. And hopefully, we’ll continue to have great success together.
SS: What’s been the key for you in terms of longevity, staying in the league and being as valuable at 34 as you were at 24, if not more? You had seven productive seasons in Utah before that four-year run in Atlanta. There aren’t a ton of guys form that 2006 Draft class (Millsap was the 47th overall pick by the Jazz) still around.
PM: As I said, evolving with the game and taking care of my body. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into my body over the years. And it pays off. I’ve been blessed and fortunate during my journey to meet a lot of people, doctors and therapists, plus with the knowledge I have gained over the years in the areas of health and fitness, I’ve been able to put together a nice team to keep my body healthy and be successful.
SS: With that said, what kind of move has Denver been for you in terms of the fit you’ve been off the court? I know you were ingrained into the community in both Salt Lake City and Atlanta in your previous stops.
PM: It’s been great, man. Great. You know people probably don’t realize this but I lived in Denver for 10 years as a kid. I was familiar with the city and what it had to offer. You know like any place it’s changed a lot over the years. But that familiarity hit home for me. My brothers and my mom, being out here at an early age, so there was always some stuff in my head after that, like there was some unfinished business. It felt like that when I signed here and really, it was a match made in heaven, if you ask me.
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