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NEW ORLEANS — When the Eastern Conference All-Stars took the floor for Saturday’s practice session at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the first player introduced was Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks. The atmosphere was electric:
Paul Millsap is very excited about All-Star Practice pic.twitter.com/yRsJ0LwgrP
— Hawks Reddit (@ATLHawks_Reddit) February 18, 2017
That’s just about perfect, isn’t it? Music blaring, public address announcer yawping, dancers gyrating … and Paul Millsap, stone-faced, walks through it at an unhurried pace as fans offer a polite, respectful, muted pop.
To the extent that the 32-year-old forward has a public-facing persona, this is it. His brand is order, all placid countenances and hospital corners, a soft laugh and a pause to consider before answering. He’s about the work, not about the talking about the work, and certainly not about the flashing lights and fireworks that can attend the work’s successful completion.
The approach has served him well. It also makes him kind of a weird All-Star.
the nba all star game always starts off fun then it gets to the point where paul millsap is subbed in and i just fall asleep
— rob (@dmxbark) February 18, 2017
I think I saw Paul Millsap on TV but I can't be sure bc I don't know who he is.
— Petty Pablo (@LanePiffin) February 19, 2017
Paul Millsap is so uninteresting his emoji is just his number. https://t.co/qIwdJXM0Cz
— chreez (@ChrisMcGlinch) February 17, 2017
We sat through that and we still gotta watch Paul Millsap shoot midrange jumpers in the ASG tomorrow
— kam (@nikesonmyTWEET) February 19, 2017
— NBA (@NBA) February 18, 2017
“I mean, at the end of the day, I play the game the right way, regardless of All-Star Game or not,” Millsap said during Friday’s media session. “Some may call it boring; I call it basketball.”
No, Millsap’s game — built early in his career on tenacious rebounding, now tilted toward heady face-up play and an advanced understanding of where to be and when on the defensive end — and personality aren’t a hand-in-glove fit for an exhibition built on aerial artistry, long-range bombing and scarcely a whiff of actual resistance. But while the All-Star Game itself is supposed to be a treat for fans, All-Star berths, and especially reserve slots, also allow coaches to recognize the players whose contributions might fly under fans’ radar.
“Before we walked out onto the court [for Saturday’s practice], I said, ‘Paul, some of the festivities and the hoopla is not really your cup of tea, is it?'” said Eastern Conference head coach Brad Stevens, who developed an appreciation for how disruptive the “pro’s pro” could be during Atlanta’s six-game victory over his Boston Celtics during the first round of the 2016 playoffs. “And he acknowledged that. I think he’s a hard-working guy, he’s a real winner, and he’s impacted the organization he’s been with in a great way.”
The approach is what made him Division I’s leading rebounder three years running at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La., a half-hour’s drive west of Millsap’s hometown of Monroe and a 4 1/2 hour trip from Smoothie King Center, where he’ll suit up for the East on Sunday night. It’s what made him the 47th overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, what allowed him to instantly earn rotation minutes under the notoriously hard-charging Jerry Sloan, and carve out a role on a 51-win Utah Jazz team.
It’s what kept those minutes coming, turning him into a starter in Utah and earning him a four-year, $32 million offer sheet in restricted free agency that quickly became a bargain as he developed into one of the league’s steadiest frontcourt performers. He’s continued that progression since joining the Hawks in the summer of 2013, taking strides as a shooter and playmaker while growing into the two-way linchpin of an organization that has made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Atlanta, and that had the greatest season in franchise history two years ago before bowing out to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. (On that score, the Hawks have plenty of company.)
This year’s Hawks remain in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs despite having turned over four-fifths of that 60-win starting lineup, reorganizing around Dwight Howard, Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr. Millsap is the last man standing, the lone constant, and while his shooting percentages and efficiency have dipped this year, he remains one of the game’s most versatile sources of production, standing as one of just eight players averaging at least 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal this season.
The other seven: LeBron, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin. Quiet as it’s kept — and he’s always kept it pretty quiet — that’s the company Millsap keeps.
“He’s a complete player,” said Toronto Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who’s making his third All-Star appearance alongside Millsap. “What he’s able to do at the [power forward] position — he’s one of the best fours in the league. Defending, being able to switch on guards. To be a big man. To be able to play isolation, knock down some 3s, stretch out the floor, pass the ball, you know what I mean? The type of player he is, the league at that four position is kind of transitioning over to them type of guys, because they’re so skilled, and you’ve got to credit that to guys like Paul Millsap.”
Atlanta has outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the floor this season, per NBA Stats, scoring at a slightly below league-average clip while preventing buckets at a rate surpassed over the full campaign by the NBA-best defenses of the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Jazz. When he sits, the Hawks’ defense drops from monstrous to mediocre, and their attack plummets to a rate of offensive efficiency that would displace the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA’s basement.
“He does everything that his team needs to be done to win games,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who offered a laugh of recognition and a “Mine either!” when asked about Millsap’s game not necessarily being the most All-Star-highlight-friendly. “He rebounds, he scores, he blocks shots, he plays defense. He leads. He does everything, and to great fashion. He’s respected. It’s well-earned, and that’s hard. You’ve just got to respect him.”
In a league where consistency is tough to come by, you know pretty much exactly what you’re going to get from Millsap on a nightly basis. As Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers recently put it, “He’s ‘Groundhog Day.’” From the outside looking in, living the same day over and over again might seem boring. But what if that particular one happened to be, like, a really good day?
“Some people just have a fundamental game without the highlights, and that’s what he has,” said John Wall, whose Washington Wizards have tangled with “matchup problem” Millsap in both the regular- and postseason. “I mean, everybody has to have their own style of game, you know what I mean? You can’t try to force it to somebody. That’s how he is, and that’s how he plays, and it’s working, to be a four-time All-Star.”
In his fourth time around, though, and his second in his home state, Millsap has intimated that he might change things up a little bit, and maybe even try to — we pause now to give you time to brace yourself — do some cool stuff.
“I don’t know. I think this year I may be a little bit more aggressive,” he said. “The past few years, I spectated and watched all the other players, the great players around me. This year I’ll get a little more involved and be more aggressive […] I do have to get some of my streetball out of me, because I do have some of that in me.”
OK, so: Streetball Paul Millsap. What the hell does that look like?
“I don’t know,” said Lowry with a laugh. “We might have to go back to Louisiana Tech to see some highlights of Paul.”
Bad news, Kyle: the top YouTube result for “Paul Millsap Louisiana Tech highlight” is a nine-minute, 22-second compilation of a young Millsap fighting for post position and offensive rebounding room against Southern and Texas Tech. He was wearing a headband in one game, though. Maybe he’ll bring that swag back.
Or, y’know, maybe not.
“Nah — you know, what works for him is what works,” DeRozan said. “It’s why he’s here. Stick to what he know, and that’s what he’s been doing. I don’t expect him to go out there and try to 360 windmill or nothing like that.”
But as a pretty famous basketball player once said, “If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome.” Paul Millsap has spent a lifetime building good habits, and they’ve served as the foundation for a very good career that has made him a very wealthy and widely respected man. He’s earned the right to cut loose a little bit. There’s no better place than New Orleans, and no better time than the present, to take a momentary break from the monotony.
“I’ve just got to get out of that for one day,” he said with a smile.
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