Toronto • All Al Jefferson had to hear was Paul Millsap's name.
Quietly sitting alone in front of a near-empty locker space Monday night, Jefferson was asked about his teammate's heart and desire.
As a whole, the Jazz were showing clear signs of fracture: momentum and forward movement were elusive; close, winnable games had been gifted away at the last minute; too much rapid-fire change was doing too much damage. But as an individual, Millsap had been pure steel. The fifth-year Utah power forward had shrugged off a wide variety of injuries throughout the season, never drawing attention to himself while pushing his body further than most modern professional basketball athletes were willing to go.
Jefferson believed that many NBA players already would have been down for the count if they had been forced to carry the weight that Millsap has lifted. And when given the opportunity to discuss Millsap's devotion to his team and his chosen profession, his friend did not hesitate.
"Some people play this game for whatever reason," said Jefferson, prior to the Jazz's 131-109 road loss to the New York Knicks. "You've got people like Paul who play this game because they love it."
The love was evident Monday night. During a morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden, Millsap acknowledged that tendinitis in his left knee was limiting his movement and causing serious pain. The player who hates to miss a single game was considering sitting out only his second of the season. But Millsap was in uniform by warm-ups, and he clocked 24 minutes against the Knicks before finally heading toward the bench.
"He's a true professional," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "He's going to give you what he's got, and sometimes he's going to give you a little bit more than he has. And last night was a great indicator. He probably shouldn't of been out there as long as I left him out there. But he was trying."
Millsap made it until midway through the third quarter against New York before being pulled off the hardwood for good with 7 minutes, 56 seconds left in the period. It took the sight of a limping, ailing Iron Man for Corbin to pull the trigger, since Millsap acknowledged that he can be "hardheaded" when the decision to play or sit is left in his hands.
"Paul's going to work," Corbin said. "He's going to give everything he has, and I appreciate that."
Of course, Millsap does not chew metal to impress or please. He performs according to his own personal code. One that saw him enter what teammates dubbed the "Matrix" on Jan. 8, ignoring a bruised right hip to pour in 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting during overtime in a comeback road victory against Houston. One that pushed him to play through three severely injured fingers Jan. 31, just so he could pull down a game-high 12 rebounds and carry Utah to a home win versus Charlotte. And one that has allowed him to endure and overcome an ever-growing list of ailments left knee tendinitis, bruised left big toe, dislocated left pinkie, bruised right thumb, sore back, sprained right ankle, flu as he has easily become the toughest and most dependable athlete on the Jazz's roster.
Bring up his honor, though, and Millsap gets quiet.
"I'm not going to run through it," Millsap said. "Most of 'em I can't even remember."
There has been a downside to his resiliency. Millsap acknowledged that he has at times felt drained this season, balancing self-respect with the knowledge that a Utah team that features two undersized post players in the starting lineup needs him more than ever now that Deron Williams is in New Jersey. The former Louisiana Tech standout has yet to reach a breaking point. But he is just 154 minutes from his career high (2,290 set in 2008-09) with 18 regular-season games to go. His body is showing serious wear. And the playoffs do not begin for more than a month.
"That's all a part of it," Millsap said. "It's my first year through this, being a starter. You learn different things as you go through it that's going to help you in the future. It's been a learning process for me this year, and I've just got to get better at it."
While Millsap figures out what players such as Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade learned years ago a long season can become shorter if the dial is not always set to 10 his Jazz teammates sit back in wonder.
"It just shows the heart that he has," Jefferson said.
Position • Forward
Year • 5
Vitals • 6-foot-8, 250 pounds
Stats • 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals
Career highs • Games started (63), free-throw percentage (75.8), average minutes (33.9)
Jazz power forward Paul Millsap has played through a variety of injuries this season, only missing one of Utah's 64 games. The proud but humble Millsap would not disclose all of his injuries and illnesses. But here's a look at some known ailments:
• Left knee tendinitis
• Bruised right hip
• Bruised left big toe
• Dislocated left pinkie
• Bruised right thumb
• Sore back
• Sprained right ankle
Jazz at Raptors
P At Air Canada Centre, Toronto
Tipoff • 5 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 33-31, Raptors 17-46
Last meeting • Jazz, 125-108 (Nov. 3, 2010)