Michael Malone has changed up his postgame routine in February. There’s a handful of media members who prefer to stick around after the final whistle and watch the on-court interview with the player of Altitude’s choosing, but lately those who do are likely to miss a portion of the head coach’s media availability. With haste now, Malone finds his spot across the hall from Denver’s locker room and glances down at his final box score, a move that signals he’s ready to begin. It’s not really for reference. He already knows the numbers. He already knows exactly what he wants to say.
“I thought Paul Millsap saved the day for us.”
Those were the first words out of Malone’s mouth after the Nuggets cemented a 121-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, moving a game up in the standings and securing the head-to-head tiebreaker.
There’s not a soul who watched Denver’s most important game of the season and would disagree. Paul went full Millsap, posting a modest 12 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes, but finding ways to impact a game that slip through the net of a traditional box score.
The 13-year-veteran stabilized the young Nuggets as what had been a smooth ride through three quarters suddenly grew turbulent. Three of Millsap’s four offensive rebounds came during the final quarter, a quarter in which he was the most impactful defender and poised player on the floor.
He was everywhere.
“We missed a second free throw,” said Malone as he described a key sequence late in the game. “Paul comes out of nowhere and gets a loose ball. Then he blocks a shot. Then he takes a charge. I just thought all of his hustle plays down the stretch were tremendous for us.”
Millsap’s heroics came at a time when the Nuggets were taking on water quickly. Their 13 point lead had evaporated in a span of less than four minutes. Suddenly, after three quarters of complete control for Denver, it felt like the Thunder’s game to lose. But the Nuggets didn’t panic.
Their veteran didn’t let them.
“He’s our leader,” Malone continued while praising Millsap. “In the middle of that run, (there was a) free throw, he grabbed all the guys together on the foul line, talking to them, huddling them up, telling them to calm down.”
It happened with 6:08 remaining in the game. Nerlens Noel drew a foul on Jamal Murray and went to the line with a chance to give OKC the lead. Millsap raised his arms and called for a team huddle.
“Yeah, that’s what I told them,” Millsap confirmed moments later by his locker. “Just stay calm, keep our composure, just fight through it. A lot of things weren’t going our way so just keep our composure.”
Over the next six minutes Denver outscored OKC 24-15, holding them to 3-for-9 from the floor and forcing three turnovers. The run secured a victory that substantially increases their chances of finishing with a top-two seed out West.
As the Nuggets make the final turn on the season, there’s no longer any question if they’re a playoff caliber team. The questions now are how far can they go once they get there? And how much will their inexperience in that arena cost them?
This is exactly why President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly opened up the wallet for Millsap in July of 2017.
“Been there before,” Millsap responded when asked about leading by example during tense moments. “This is my thirteenth year in the league, so I’ve been there. A lot of situations, a lot of scenarios—I can feel how the game is going and what I need to do to help our team win.”
The intangibles that Millsap brings to the table are hard to quantify but not hard to identify when you spend time around this team. He knows what it takes to compete at the highest level and his poise in their most trying moments is beginning to rub off on his teammates.
“It’s a real factor,” Millsap told the media when describing the value of veteran presence. “It’s a feel. If you’ve felt something before, you know exactly what it feels like and how to get out of that situation. Being there before definitely helps. A lot of these young guys haven’t been in this situation. This is a playoff atmosphere, playoff game, playoff caliber team—it’s good to win. It’s good to beat this team.”
The first two major injuries of Millsap’s career have hindered his ability to flourish in Denver. But over the last three games he’s rounded back into form and reminded us why he was always the perfect addition to this team.
“Paul Millsap understands what time of year it is,” Malone concluded. “He knows what time it is, because he’s been there and done that. I think our players are going to start understanding that as well just by following his example.”