Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap providing steady presence throughout the playoffs
When the Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap in the summer of 2017, moments and games like Sunday’s Game 4 were exactly when they envisioned the veteran power forward making his mark on a growing Nuggets team. Down 2-1 in the series and by nearly double-digits late in the first half, the outlook wasn’t too bright for Denver.
Despite a dispiriting Game 3 loss in a fourth overtime, the Nuggets battled mental and physical fatigue to escape with a crucial Game 4 victory and tie the series up at 2-2. What is clear throughout this extended playoff run is that Millsap has impacted his squad both on-and-off the court.
On the court, the 34-year-old veteran has been a go-to option for Denver throughout this second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. After an up-and-down first-round in which he averaged 11.9 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting from the field, Millsap has averaged nearly 18 points (55.7 percent from the field), 10 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in the Conference Semifinals, all while playing 37.5 minutes per contest.
"On the court, he's been fantastic,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “We feel that he's got a good matchup in this series. That's not to knock Al-Farouq Aminu, but we feel Paul is a guy that we can go to and feature at times, and last night was another example of that.”
His latest performance may have been his best, and most important of the playoffs. In 41 minutes of action, the four-time All-Star dropped 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked two shots. Millsap showcased his versatility on both ends of the floor, as he knocked down two 3-pointers, got to the free throw line and scored in the post. Meanwhile, the playoff-tested veteran defended the rim and capably switched onto Portland’s guards for stretches of the game, including a key steal on Damian Lillard in the third quarter.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to many that a matchup against Portland has brought the best out of Millsap. In the regular season, Denver’s starting power forward averaged 19.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 63 percent from the field and 60 percent from three. Even though the 3-ball hasn’t been falling consistently for Millsap throughout the playoffs (30 percent), he has been shooting well from deep in the second round, connecting on 37.5 percent from beyond the arc.
While Millsap can impact the game on both ends of the floor, the defense he provides was key for Denver this season, as the team jumped up to 10th in the league on that end of the floor, a significant improvement from 23rd in the previous season (Millsap only appeared in 38 games last season).
"(Paul) has just been so steady on both ends,” Nuggets center Mason Plumlee noted late in the regular season. “He's made plays on defense and it just seems like he's always causing problems. Whether it's deflections, taking charges, rebounding at a high level. He's playing great and has really taken us to a new level.”
With Malone altering his rotation in recent games to include Millsap in lineups that surround him with four bench players, the veteran forward has received opportunities to stand out.
“When you're out there with your second unit, Paul gives you a guy you can go through who is going to get you a good shot,” Malone said. “His defense and rebounding are things that he's done throughout his entire career and continues to do at a high level."
However, Millsap’s presence as one of the few playoff-tested veterans in the locker room also allows him to stand out off the court. Coming into this year’s postseason, Millsap had 87 playoff games under his belt. Furthermore, Millsap’s teams had advanced past the first round on five different occasions throughout his career, including two appearances in the Conference Finals.
"(Paul) has been great,” Plumlee said ahead of Game 2 against Portland. “He said a couple things to the team before the playoffs and even since (then). He's one of those guys that doesn't speak often but when he does everyone listens. We've all watched him play in the Eastern Conference Finals and be on those teams in Utah, so he's a good resource for us."
The playoff rotation around Millsap includes several players experiencing their first playoff action. Nikola Jokić (24 years old), Jamal Murray (22), Gary Harris (24), Monte Morris (23) and Malik Beasley (22) make up a young core for the Nuggets, and Millsap has certainly shared his knowledge and experience with the team.
"Paul is that glue guy on-and-off the court,” Murray said ahead of the team’s first playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. “On the court, he pushes us, he talks to us the most as a veteran. He's one of those guys that always has the right thing to say, so guys look forward to hearing him talk.”
Despite reaching the latter years of his career, Millsap’s play has improved as the season and playoffs have gone along. Millsap has embraced the extended playing time throughout the playoffs and has increased his scoring average on higher efficiency. The 34-year-old owns a 59.2 true shooting percentage in the playoffs compared to 57 percent in the regular season (true shooting percentage is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-point field goals, 3-pointers and free throws).
"Paul does it in his own style,” Malone said ahead of Game 5. “He's not a guy that's always speaking, he's not a rah-rah guy, but he finds his moments to pull guys to the side one-on-one, he leads by example, and when the time calls for it he will lead with his voice. I think it's really calming and reassuring to such a young group of players."
As the series shifts to Denver for A crucial Game 5, the Nuggets must feel good coming off of a bounce-back victory on the road. What should give Denver even more confidence is that their marquee free agency addition from 2017 is paying dividends throughout the playoffs, especially as Millsap continues to take advantage of a favorable frontcourt matchup on both ends of the floor.