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A Karl-Anthony Towns elbow that resulted in five stitches above his right eyebrow couldn’t deter Paul Millsap late last month in a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sporting a headband, which has since become a symbol of his reenergized offensive floor game, Millsap emerged from the Nuggets’ locker room at Target Center and returned to Denver’s bench midway through the fourth quarter with his team clinging to a one-point lead. Millsap, who over the game’s first three quarters had played near-perfect basketball, tallying 23 points on 10-11 shooting, three rebounds and five steals in just 20 minutes, checked in a few moments later, blocked Towns on a point-blank layup attempt and hit a difficult 5-foot leaner with under two minutes remaining to help clinch a 103-101 Nuggets victory.
Millsap’s season averages — 13.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.5 steals — don’t scream All-Star, but the 33-year-old has had that level of impact on the Nuggets this season with performances like his gutsy effort in Minnesota. He’s starting to get national recognition for the role he’s played in Denver’s 15-7 start to the regular season too, taking home Western Conference Player of the Week honors for his performance over the Nuggets’ last two games.
Millsap averaged 21.0 points (60.0 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent from three), 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game last week. It’s the third time in Millsap’s career that he’s taken home Player of the Week honors. He’s the second Nuggets player to win the award this season after Jokic earned the title for his play during the first week of the regular season.
After some early-season struggles that prompted Millsap to admit that he was overthinking things, he’s posted solid offensive numbers. Over the last 10 games, Millsap is averaging 16.0 points on 55.5 percent shooting from the field, 46.4 percent from three, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He’s also averaging roughly 16 points (57.4 percent shooting from the field and 57.1 percent from three) 8.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block per game since donning the headband. But defensively is where Millsap has earned his $30 million paycheck this season.
Behind its starting power forward, Denver has seen an unprecedented jump in its play on the defensive end of the floor for a roster that returned 78 percent of its minutes from the 2017-18 season. A year after finishing in the bottom-10 in the league in defense for a third-straight year, the Nuggets are the third-best defense in the league through 22 games. They’ve shown no signs of letting up either.
“Defense is our staple,” said Millsap. “Its been there all year.”
Millsap’s defensive focus has rubbed off on his teammates too. Nikola Jokic has been an engaged defender all season long, switching out onto quicker ball handlers with regularity and putting together highlight-reel worth defensive possessions that routinely set the internet ablaze. The Nuggets’ bench — anchored by Mason Plumlee — is statistically the best second unit in the league and is stymying opposing benches at every turn. Denver’s young backcourt of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray has also upped its intensity on that end of the floor.
“It’s just effort,” Murray said speaking about Denver’s improved defense. “It’s every single night. There’s a lot of games, and it’s easy to take a night off and just think you can beat a team with your offense and hope they miss. To play defense every single night and hold teams under 100 points, it takes a lot of energy.”
That grit and determination Millsap showed last month in Minnesota embodies the Nuggets’ start to the season. Denver isn’t packing it in on the road if they get off to a slow start. The Nuggets aren’t coming out flat against inferior opponents, something that contributed to Denver missing the playoffs for a fifth-consecutive season last year. And even if the Nuggets get knocked down once or twice, and need to get stitched up midgame, they’re not going to roll over.
The renewed spirit is evident up and down Denver’s roster, but it starts with Millsap.