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Paul Millsap stood at his locker following the Denver Nuggets’ 122-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — his first game in more than three months — and assured anyone willing to listen that Denver will fix its issues on the defensive end of the floor that allowed the Clippers to mount a 19-point second half comeback and stun the Nuggets on Tuesday.
“Trust me, we will get better on the defensive end,” Millsap said. “Tonight was a prime example of what we need to do to get better.”
Millsap had watched in street clothes as the Nuggets executed flawlessly on offense over the past few months and won 10 of their last 14 games. However, Denver’s defense struggled over that stretch and its lack of attention to detail on defense cost them against Los Angeles. It took just one postgame comment from the Nuggets’ de facto leader to make it clear where the team’s focus would lie over the next few days.
In his return, Millsap performed about as well as the Nuggets could have hoped for after missing 44 games. His play tailed off as the game wore on — as expected after missing so much time — but over the game’s first two quarters, he captained Denver to one of its best defensive halves of the season.
When healthy, Millsap is one of the league’s better defensive minds. He’s incredibly focused and in-tune with not just his own but every defensive assignment. He can vault across the lane from the weak side to provide help and has great hands and feet. In his absence, Denver struggled to communicate on defense. In his first game back, Millsap was giving defensive cues to his teammates from every spot on the floor.
The Nuggets allowed just 73.6 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the court over the first two quarters Tuesday night. In 13 first-half minutes, Denver outscored Los Angeles 33-21 while Millsap played.
He checked in at the 5:57 mark of the first quarter and was rusty as expected. Millsap’s first shot was a fadeaway from the right baseline that was almost an airball. He turned the ball over a few possessions later. His first bucket was a layup with 2:57 left in the first quarter. From there, Millsap found his rhythm on defense and helped the Nuggets’ piece together a stellar defensive half.
First, Millsap stepped into the path of a driving Lou Williams to draw a charge. Despite only playing in the first 16 games of the year, Millsap’s five charges drawn on the year were second on the team to Mason Plumlee’s seven.
A few possessions later, Millsap flew across the lane to block Williams’ layup attempt.
Millsap covered a ton of ground after Williams had already gone into his gather.
Millsap’s last defensive highlight of the half came just moments later when he swatted away a Tobias Harris layup.
Over Tuesday’s third and fourth quarters, Millsap struggled defensively, as did the rest of Denver’s defense. But his half was reminiscent of the defensive impact he had earlier this season.
The Nuggets are the 25th-ranked defense in the league. After Tuesday night’s collapse, opponents are shooting 48.0 percent from the field against Denver — a mark that ranks the Nuggets dead last in opponent field goal percentage.
Millsap promised to fix his team’s defensive shortcoming, but he can’t do it himself. He’ll need buy-in from the rest of his teammates.
With the Nuggets’ offense expected to take a slight step back while reintegrating Millsap, Denver will need more first halves like Tuesday’s against Los Angeles. Its playoff lives might depend on it.