Denver — It's the same reaction every time.
Paul Millsap will singlehandedly destroy Miami, lift the Jazz over Houston or propel Utah past the Nuggets. And after each surreal outing, Millsap will speak calmly, answer every question in the same quiet voice he uses for all ordinary queries, and basically act like nothing's even happened.
Except it has.
Millsap's 16 fourth-quarter points Sunday during the Jazz's 106-96 victory against Denver look great on paper. They were spectacular in person. At the 9:49 mark during the final period, Millsap had 10 points and was producing another solid game. Then he went off. A dunk. A 6-foot jumper. A layup. A 4-foot turnaround, fast-break layup, 5-foot turnaround and 17-foot fadeaway. Fourteen consecutive points in 4:42. A close game was blown wide open, and Millsap had done it again.
The forward few wanted during the 2006 draft had seen an opening, called for the ball and closed down another NBA game.
How on was Millsap? Before one of his fourth-quarter baskets, he made eye contact with point guard Earl Watson before the latter had even crossed half court.
"[Millsap] got it going and there was nothing I could do about it, either," said Denver forward Al Harrington, who alternated guarding Millsap with Danilo Gallinari and Nene. "Usually I can cut guys' water off. But he is a good player and he had a great fourth quarter, so I’ll take my hat off to him. Good job."
Millsap said it didn't matter who was guarding him. He was going to score, no matter what.
"At some point, I didn't really recognize who it was," Millsap said. "When you get in a zone like that, you get hot and start feeling it and guys just start looking for you."
It's the third time since Nov. 9, 2010 Millsap's entered the zone. The first was the most memorable: A career-high 46 points during a 116-114 overtime victory against Miami, which included 11 points in the final 28 seconds of regulation. Then there was March 20, 2011, when Millsap overcame several injuries to score 12 points in OT and lift the Jazz past Houston, 103-99.
For three quarters Sunday, Utah's win against Denver was more of a true team effort. The Jazz's defense continued to improve, while everyone from Gordon Hayward (season-high 19 points) to Alec Burks (10 points) kept Utah in stride. But when the Nuggets pulled within 81-79 with 10:37 left in the fourth, Millsap took over. Even his movement on the court changed, with the six-year veteran taking the shape he only shows once he's entered the zone.
"When he gets to rolling like that, it really don't matter who you put on him, because he can score in so many ways. … You basically just pass and get out of his way," Jazz forward C.J. Miles said.
Added Al Jefferson: "I'm just glad I don't have to guard him."
While the modest Millsap again played down his work, a few of his teammates openly celebrated the victory. Several Jazzmen joked and hollered during the team's postgame shower session, while players such as Raja Bell and Devin Harris sounded much more confident discussing their team's chances than they did just a week ago.
"The way we beat each other up in practice … we've been waiting just to bring it to the games," said Harris, who scored 10 points and recorded seven assists. "We've seen this in training camp and it's good to see it finally transfer over."
Josh Howard on his left quad injury: It tightened up a lot [during pregame warmups]. I also took a knee hard [Saturday] night and I don't think that helped it out a lot. … Just fighting through it. I'll be back out there soon.
Derrick Favors on his sprained right ankle: … just going up for a rebound and come down, twisted my ankle. … Overall it's good. … I'm going to play Tuesday. No doubt about it.
The Jazz outscored the Nuggets 54-44 in the paint, while Utah held Denver to 42.7 percent shooting from the field.
A Nuggets team coach George Karl said was too cool for its own good hit only 66.7 percent (26 of 39) of its free throws.
Another night of balanced scoring for the Jazz, with five players in double-digits and at least nine scoring four points.
Enes Kanter held his own against Chris Andersen, fighting off Birdman for a couple rebounds and showing off strong offensive moves in the paint.
Easily the best win of the season for the Jazz, who've improved in almost every facet of the game since Dec. 27 in Los Angeles. Still a long way to go, but expectations are changing with every real victory.
Another keeper for Millsap, whose 26 points had the weight of 62.
Brian T. Smith
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