It’s hard to find two teams on more opposite sides of the spectrum in playoff experience than the Nuggets and the Lakers. Los Angeles boasts LeBron James and his nine Finals appearances, Danny Green and his championship runs with the Spurs and Raptors, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and even J.R. Smith. Meanwhile, in Denver, most of the young and carefree Nuggets are enjoying their first taste of the conference finals, with only one player in the rotation having made it out of the second round before.
That player is 35-year-old Paul Millsap, who signed in Denver three years ago after four straight All-Star appearances with the Hawks. Millsap’s Atlanta teams were plucky, including the outfit that won 60 games in 2015 before running into a LeBron-sized wall in the conference finals, losing in a sweep to James and the Cavs. And it was largely the experiences of losing to James in back-to-back postseasons that led Millsap to Denver in the first place.
“I’ve always been on teams, I won’t say they weren’t good enough, but we never had that superstar player. Joker [Nikola Jokic] is one of those guys who can help me get over the hump,” Millsap told Sports Illustrated in February, about two weeks before the season suspension.
“I had some really good teammates in the past, but I really got some young guys who are ready to take that next step,” Millsap told SI about his current squad on Thursday, one night before his return to the conference finals to face yet another James-led outfit. “They don’t care about the hype and the hoopla, they just want to get out there and play. That’s how champions are made.”
Millsap, too, is itching to play, looking to make his first Finals appearance in his 14th season in the NBA. The former second-round pick, who will be a free agent after the playoffs, figures to play an interesting role in this series. If the Lakers play big, Millsap could draw the initial assignment of trying to slow down Anthony Davis. If L.A. switches to a small group, there may be some moments when he’s matched up against James. Despite arriving in Denver with the All-Star pedigree in 2017, Millsap has long since accepted his job is to play a variety of roles.
“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and help this team,” Millsap admits. “The more I calm down and trust the players around me, trust the coaching staff, the pressure comes down. That was a big step for me, understanding I don’t have to do it all. We have a really good team who can carry more load than I ever could have.”
Chatting with SI on the phone from Orlando on the eve of Game 1, Millsap discussed his playoff history, why he believes the Nuggets can make the Finals, when we can expect the return of magic on his TikTok account and much more.
Rohan Nadkarni: You’ve been to the conference finals against LeBron before, and you don’t need me to remind you how that turned out. How frustrating was it to face someone like him at that point in your career, who could seemingly just wave his hand at your team’s success?
Paul Millsap: To even take it a step further, the first time I made the conference finals, Kobe Bryant was in my way. There’s always been that superstar who has been in the way for me trying to take that next step and compete for a championship. It’s been frustrating, especially when you lay everything out there and set a goal. It’s always that one person or one team in your way. This year feels completely different. We have a lot of really good talent. If you ask me, we have a top-five player of this league in Jokic, one of the rising stars in Murray and a lot of really good basketball players on our team.
Just seeing how [Jokic and Murray] are taking over games. They are taking over games like superstars. That’s what we expect from them, and they got more confidence in doing that. Jamal in the first round, putting up the numbers that he did. Joker has been doing it. But how they’re approaching the game, how calm they are. I think this year is our year.
RN: In Game 5 of the Clippers series, you got into it with Marcus Morris, and then went on a little run of your own. People like me like to say something like that maybe helped swing the series. Was it a galvanizing moment for you guys?
PM: Just speaking personally, it was the tipping point. It was enough. They’d be running their mouths all series, calling us soft since the first game. To their credit, we let them do it. We didn’t stand up for ourselves, we didn’t do anything about it. That was a tipping point for me to say, “Enough, no more talking.” For me, I think that helped spark the next three wins.
RN: What will you tell your younger teammates about playing in a series like this one?
PM: Words can’t even describe it. I’m not going to fill their heads with a bunch of what-ifs. What makes them special is they’ve been able to feel it in the first couple games and understand what they need to do to set the tone and come out aggressive. I’m big on trying not to overload these guys' brains and minds because you never know how these games can turn out. It’s really up to them to feel it out. Of course I’m going to help them, but I want to let guys experience what they need to experience.
RN: It’s fun as fans to watch you guys come back from 3–1 deficits, but obviously you want to avoid them. Is there anything you guys can do to address that sense of urgency?
PM: We’ll try. We’re not going to look too deep into it because we made it here. [Laughs.] If you’re successful, you keep going. Of course we don’t want to be down 1–3, but at the end of the day, that’s how those series ended up, and we ended up winning. You never know how the ball is going to drop.
RN: Mike Malone really seems to be a players’ coach and in general has his own vibe. What’s your relationship like with him?
PM: We have a great relationship. Since I got here, we’ve always got on the same wavelength in how we want to do things. He’s been great. A lot of guys respect him for his honesty. Watching his growth over the years has been amazing. It’s been unbelievable to watch.
RN: Speaking of growth, do you know why he had a buzzcut for all these years when he had the ability to grow out his hair?
PM: Yeah, I have no idea, but that’s definitely a good question to ask. I think watching a lot of the players, including myself, get these fades, he came into the bubble with a fade, and everybody was shocked he would do that.
RN: During the early parts of quarantine, I said you had the best TikTok among NBA players. You had some real dad hours pulling magic tricks on your kids. Is there just no time for the magic anymore?
PM: There’s no time for magic right now. The magic’s being done on the court. There’s no time for it. I definitely need my kids around to help me with that whole process, and they’re not here. Whenever I get home, which is hopefully after we win the championship, it’s back to the TikToks. It’s back to the fun.
RN: At the beginning of the restart, I picked the Nuggets to make the Finals. Tell me why I was right for picking you guys.
PM: I think you’re right because we’re one of the teams that’s been together the longest. For three years, we’ve had the same lineups, the same guys. That chemistry takes us a long way. Having a full team, not just a starting five, guys coming off the bench. A lot of hungry guys. We have a good mixture of veterans and players who want to win and make it to that next step.