Paul Millsap’s leadership helping Denver Nuggets in first round playoff series vs. Spurs

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Standing in the locker room after a 118-108 Game 3 loss to the Spurs, Paul Millsap was asked how important is it for the Nuggets is to secure a result in Game 4. The 13-year veteran didn’t shy away in his reply.

“It’s vital, we’ll win it.” Millsap said.

It wasn’t as bold as Joe Namath in 1969, but for today’s NBA, it was still a gutsy statement.

Although Millsap had two points and four rebounds in Game 4, his words set the impetus of Denver’s 117-103 victory. It instilled a confidence and belief that perhaps wasn’t as strong in the previous playoff game. It’s something he’s been doing all-season long according to his coaches and teammates.

“I think Paul’s resume, 94 playoff games now and four-time All-Star [and] the class he carries himself – all of our guys want to emulate Paul Millsap,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said on Monday. "They watch him, they learn from him, they listen to him and I think everyone in our organization has benefited from him being here.”

Malone explained Millsap isn’t an outwardly vocal player, so when he does speak, whether it’s one-on-one, to the group or media, his words are respected and valued. With the eighth youngest playoff team in NBA history, Millsap’s experience is invaluable to Denver. Although his stats don’t leap off the page – 12 points and 4.0 rebounds a game in the postseason – he has made crucial contributions on both sides of the floor during the first round series against San Antonio.

For example, it was Millsap’s 11-point scoring output in the first quarter of Game 2 that helped keep the Nuggets within distance until Nikola Jokić, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray all had strong successive quarters to seal the team’s first postseason win in six years.

Defensively, Millsap has been tasked with helping guard LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay and has done a solid job, especially on Gay – a converted small forward. After Game 1, where Gay hit 4 of 4 in field goals when matched up against Millsap, things quickly changed in the following games. Gay has only converted one of his 10 shots against Denver’s veteran power forward.  While some of it is down to the Nuggets changing some of their defensive schemes, Millsap also deserves credit for adjusting after the first game of the series and making things uncomfortable for Gay. It’s another moment when the veteran led by example.

Millsap admits he didn’t seek a leadership role when he joined the team in 2017, it’s something that developed organically during his time in Denver.

"Some things just happen, and you have to embrace them,” Millsap said on Monday. “I'm at a point where I'm able to embrace where I'm at at this current moment. I take pride in helping guys on-and-off the court to get to the next level."

His biggest impact as a leader might be in the development of Jokić.

Two summers ago, Millsap came onto the Nuggets as a frontcourt star, the big-name addition that would potentially raise the team into a crowded postseason picture in the Western Conference. In his second season, he’s certainly helped in doing just that. However, a lot of the team’s success over the past two seasons has come off Millsap changing his role a bit to fit the evolving dynamic of the team.

With Jokić emerging into an elite star over the past two seasons, Millsap has accepted being a player who picks his moments to be assertive on offense, while being the quarterback of the team’s defense. Jokić firmly believes he wouldn’t be where he is today, an All-Star and MVP candidate, without Millsap’s mentorship.

“When he came, he was the man [with a big reputation] and he just told me don’t think about me.” Jokić said after the Nuggets’ regular season win against the Trail Blazers on April 5. “He was an All-Star and our best player and he just gave me the opportunity.”

Millsap reflected on just how far Jokić has come since his arrival.

"Nikola has done well,” Millsap said on Monday. “He's a very poised basketball player and is mature beyond his age, as a basketball player. He knows what this moment is about and embraces it to the fullest."

After an impressive Game 4 win, the Nuggets’ locker room appears to have its swagger back. And one of the biggest reasons why is their veteran forward at the forefront.

“We can't take our foot off the pedal or relax for one second," Millsap said.

It’s a message that’s heard loud and clear by his teammates heading into Game 5.

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