To excel at any position in the NBA, there needs to be some aspect of a player’s game that sets them apart. It could be a go-to move, mental fortitude or a deep understanding of the game. On Monday night, the Atlanta Hawks went head-to-head with the formidable San Antonio Spurs and the greatest power forward of all time, Tim Duncan. With the Hawks having fought tooth and nail to keep the game tight right through to the end, they trailed by 4 with 17.5 seconds remaining. In that situation, Paul Millsap, the man who was the Hawks marquee signing this summer, found the ball in his hands.
Millsap, received the ball on the right wing from point guard Jeff Teague, before taking it inside towards the key. Only getting as far as former Hawk Boris Diaw at the top of the paint and with time winding down, Millsap stepped back with his long strides and let fly from 3. With the swoosh of the net, the game was on again. After a quick foul, and two made San Antonio free throws, it was Teague’s turn to make the 3 to tie it up at 100 with four seconds left. The Spurs and Duncan weren’t done though. Timmy stepped up to do what he’s done so many times before, make the big shot. Knocking down the tough contested 17 footer with 0.4 remaining to break Atlanta hearts.
This tells us a couple of different things. One which we already knew is that Duncan is an out and out winner. His sheer drive and determination to win allows him to will the ball into the basket, and when a fine shooting touch is combined with that attitude it’s almost impossible to stop. For a long time, Tim Duncan has been clutch, which is why he was so devastated by his missed layup late in Game 7 of last year’s Finals. With games like this one, he has shown his strength though. Duncan became the oldest player ever to record a 20 point and 20 rebound night, with his 23 and 21 against the Hawks.
We also learned a lot about Paul Millsap’s character. For the second time in four days Millsap, or “Trillsap” as I have taken to thinking of him (it will spread beyond the Hawks, wait and see), made a colossal 3 in a Hawks comeback. Last Friday against Dallas, much of the credit for the Hawks 17-point comeback went to Al Horford after he made the game winning jumper, but Millsap was a key component. With 1:16 left, Millsap made the long ball to cut the lead from four to one. Once again, he was as composed as was needed to succeed in those scenarios, even though the 3-pointer hasn’t traditionally been his shot of choice.
In his 19 games played as a Hawk to date, the former Louisiana Tech star has averaged 1.8 3-point attempts per game. To put that number in context, into his eighth year, Millsap’s career average is 0.1 attempts a night. Whether the impetus came from the Hawks coaching staff or the player himself, it’s clear there has been a conscious change. Millsap is a player who has always been a competent shooter of long jump shots, so why not step back a couple of feet further?
One of Atlanta’s biggest offensive weapons is, and has been, running pick and roll’s involving Horford to get him open jump shots at the top of the key. Horford is an excellent shooter (53.9 percent for his career) and big men are always reluctant to come that far away from the paint to guard their man, meaning he gets a high percentage of open and efficient shots.With this in mind, Millsap appears to be testing the willingness of power forwards to come out and defend him. Word of advice: they might want to start closing him down. In 19 games, Millsap has attempted 34 long balls, making 14, compared to 13 makes on 39 3-pointers in 78 games last season. Shooting 41.2 percent from deep on the season so far, he’s a significant contributor.
The magnitude of his shots, and what seems to be a knack of performing better against top teams is probably the most pleasing aspect for Atlanta though. It’s not just that he’s making three’s, but the times he makes them at. As mentioned above, it’s not just the comfortable wins, but when the outcome is in question also. Last Saturday in Washington, Millsap went off from range, shooting 4-for-5 from deep, which helped the Hawks reestablish themselves having been down as many as 18.
Millsap came to Atlanta under pressure as a result of the media viewing him as, having by far, one of the best value contracts in the league at only $9.5 million a year. If he had struggled early on, with that contract, the trade talks would have started quickly. Instead he has had 16.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 52 percent 3-point shooting off a 51.7 field goal percentage.
Becoming such a reliable option, showing fearlessness and leadership, expect the 28 year old to take many more big shots as the season progresses. And one thing is for sure, with his strength of mind, there is no reason he can’t compete with Duncan, at least in the clutch category.