Gordon Monson: Paul Millsap has one thing in mind against the Utah Jazz, and his former team won’t like it

It was just short of eight years ago and Paul Millsap was struggling. As he almost always did when he played for the Jazz, he fought through the struggle. Bobbing and weaving, punching left, punching right, moving forward, always forward, lathering up as he did his work.

Come what may, the man was determined not to let the fight get the better of him.

Why should he?

Millsap had made a career with the Jazz as a model of competitive conscientiousness — through the ups and downs and level stretches in-between. A memorable career that eventually continued on in Atlanta, where he became a four-time Eastern Conference All-Star, and then ricocheted out to Denver. He says he now is looking forward to the Nuggets’ first-round playoff matchup, starting Monday, against his former team, his first team, the team that gave him his unlikely start in the NBA as an undersized 47th pick in the 2006 draft.

“It’ll be fun to go out there and compete against them,” he says. Against familiar faces. Millsap would just as soon knock his pals out, because, he adds, “I’m going out there to win.”

Same as it ever was.

But there were things going wrong for him early in the 2012-13 season, which happened to be a contract year for the seven-year vet. He wasn’t sure how he best fit in with a Jazz club in transition, or if he fit in at all. He had been moved from his preferred power forward spot to small forward and then moved back. His minutes had dropped. He was missing shots. The Jazz had young players — Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and later would dial in on a prospect by the name of Rudy Gobert — they were edging into position for a promising future.

Exactly where that left Millsap, notwithstanding his diligence and dedication, was in a periodic state of confusion and frustration.

“I’m human,” he said back then. “Of course frustration is there. You’re going to get frustrated at times. But it’s what you do after that. My teammates give me confidence. I’ve just got to continue to stay positive and stay with it and hope it turns around. …”

He paused, and then forged on.

“…. My main thing is the team, that we’re winning. Be patient, and things eventually will turn around for you. People look at me. I’ve got to continue to be a leader, a leader by example. I still love playing this game. When I get out there, I try laying everything on the line. I’m not thinking about anything but winning. For me, competing is an amazing feeling. As long as I’m doing that, I’m fine.”

And he was.

Still is.

That was the last year Millsap played for the Jazz. He was offered an advantageous free-agent deal by the Hawks and he took it. That move was enabled by the Jazz — a decision that pained team executives, knowing full well the pro’s pro Millsap had always been and would go on being, but favoring, instead, the already commenced youth movement. They might not have fully known the individual heights Millsap would go on to reach, but reach them he did.

From the outset, when he played in Utah, the forward out of Louisiana Tech quickly gained the respect of Jerry Sloan, a coach not known for giving minutes to rookies, especially not heretofore undervalued second-round picks. But Millsap played in all 82 games that initial season, averaging 18 minutes. As his minutes increased, so did his proficiency: Millsap boosted his scoring through the years and then watched it decrease from 6.8 points to 8.1 to 13.5 to 11.6 to 17.3 to 16.6 to 14.6. His rebounding hovered near eight per game.

All good.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap (24) reacts after making a basket during the game at EnergySolutions Arena Friday April 5, 2013. Utah is winning the game 45-43 at halftime.

He demonstrated his capabilities especially well in an overtime game against the Miami Heat in 2010, a game longtime Jazz fans will remember fondly, as he scored 46 points in the win, which included three Millsap 3-pointers in the final 28 seconds of regulation. Dude was a baller.

But the Jazz, stuck in a rut of hanging near the bottom of playoff contention in the West, evolved to a point where they were turning the page.

When Millsap landed in Atlanta, his average numbers bumped up, climbing to 18.1 points per game his final year there. His rebounding soared, too, as well as his 3-point shooting.

If Millsap was a steady plow horse in Utah, one that was greatly appreciated by the fans here, he became a racehorse in the East. He also became a rich man, pulling down salaries commensurate with his pace. His first three years with the Jazz, Millsap was paid less than $800,000, and over his last four seasons in Utah, he received between $7 and $8 million. His current contract with the Nuggets — one for which the 35-year-old has been criticized because of his lesser role now — is earning him $30 million per year. This season, fighting injuries, Millsap averaged 11.6 points and 5.7 boards.

But when asked about him the other day, Nugs coach Mike Malone praised Millsap, highlighting his significant role on a team that needs his aforementioned conscientiousness. The former Jazzman is still attempting to fill the role he did all those years ago in Salt Lake City, successfully guiding a Denver team with young stars on it through those ups and downs and level stretches in-between, and now the playoffs, too, guys who may not yet know what they don’t know, but that Millsap can teach them.

He’s not thinking about anything — still — except for the one thing, the same thing.

“I’m going out there,” he says, “to win.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.