Paul (Millsap) like to play. Paul will do anything that helped this team win, whatever it takes. You tell Paul to move to the point guard, he'll do it. —Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson
SALT LAKE CITY — On April 2, the Utah Jazz were struggling and stumbling. They'd lost three in a row and appeared to be headed to a fourth straight setback, trailing the then-healthy-for-them Portland Trail Blazers by 14 points in the first half at the Rose Garden.
Another defeat — which happened far more often than not on the road this season — could've been devastating.
Desperate for something to happen, coach Tyrone Corbin reached up his sleeve for a trick.
He pulled out the Big Three.
Not LeBron's crew, the Spurs' three amigos nor Larry, Curly and Moe.
It was the Jazz's Big Three of 6-10 Al Jefferson, 6-10 Derrick Favors and 6-8 Paul Millsap.
Corbin had considered playing the tall and talented trio together earlier in the season in order to find the bigs extra playing time, but Gordon Hayward, Josh Howard and C.J. Miles had taken up about all the small forward minutes Millsap might've received in that lineup.
Three weeks later, it's almost hard to imagine the Jazz winning — or making the playoffs — without that threesome teaming up to terrorize opponents.
"It's really been beneficial to us when we've gone to it," said the 6-8 Hayward, who often plays shooting guard to add even more length to the lineup. "It's hard for teams to match up against us."
The Blazers — or what's left of them — can attest. Utah's Big Three sparked a massive 19-point turnaround in that pivotal road win, which pushed the Jazz back into playoff mode.
The Suns were the latest victims to feel the pain from that powerful offensive and defensive combination, which has been one of the reasons Utah has gone 8-4 since that fateful night in Portland.
Millsap joined Big Al, Favors, Hayward and Devin Harris with 10 minutes to go and the Jazz trailing by two points on Tuesday.
Nine dominating minutes later, and the Jazz had a 12-point lead and a playoff berth all but wrapped up.
"I think that big lineup is very special," Jefferson said. "You've got Paul, who can guard anybody from the two (shooting guard) to the five (center), in my opinion, and he just nagging at you with his hands — he's got the best hands in the league and forces turnovers.
Also, Jefferson added, "you've got Derrick Favors, who is an unbelievable shot-blocker and very athletic, and then you've got me, who's an OK shot-blocker compared to Derrick Favors. So it's a big lineup, especially on the offensive end."
Utah's trifecta is especially effective when Harris and Hayward are stretching the defense with their improved outside accuracy.
"We're starting to force our will on guys," Corbin said. "And they have to make the change to us instead of us having to make the change to them."
Millsap is the key. He's able to post up small forward counterparts while also doing an efficient job on defense.
Sure, he has to chase quicker guys around screens more often, but Millsap has accepted his new role and thrived in it. This from a guy who has always been a team player but hasn't shied from claiming he considers himself an NBA starting power forward in the past.
"My preference is to just be on the court," Millsap said. "I just want to play no matter where that is at. I'm going to try to fit in and try to find my way."
Added Jefferson: "Paul like to play. Paul will do anything that helped this team win, whatever it takes. You tell Paul to move to the point guard, he'll do it."
Millsap smiled and said the biggest difference is that he has to be in "guard shape" because of the extra running. But the speed and size helps the Jazz defend the perimeter, clog the paint and crash the boards.
The results have been impressive. The Big Three have played together for 113 minutes and, according to NBA.com, they've outscored opponents 106.7-75.8 and outrebounded foes 59.7-40.2 per 48 minutes.
"We're still working on the spacing, trying to get that down pat," Millsap said. "But it works out good."
Suns coach Alvin Gentry lamented that his team wasn't able to take advantage of Millsap's inexperience at guarding small forwards and fighting off screens.
On the other end, the Jazz were able to rip apart Phoenix's defense — Gentry called defending the Big Three "problematic" — because of Millsap's versatility combined with Favors and Big Al wreaking havoc in the paint. In Tuesday's 100-88 clincher, Millsap, Big Al and Favors tallied a total of 57 points, 42 rebounds and eight swats.
"Paul can post up most threes in the league, all the threes in the league, and when you've got me and Derrick out there, it's kind of hard to double-team," Jefferson said. "If I'm scoring the ball, you've got to box out Derrick, and when Derrick's scoring, you've got to box out me. It's kind of tough, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense."
Considering how smoothly the offense is run by San Antonio, any edge the Jazz can get will be welcomed against Duncan & Co.
Corbin admitted the triple threat has worked better than anticipated, which means you shouldn't be surprised if it's a common sight in the playoffs.
He won't start with it at first, but the second-year coach won't hesitate to assemble his cast of Avengers, either.
If Millsap plays extended minutes at small forward, however, Corbin will be challenged to also find time for Howard now that one of his favorite veteran wings is back in the fold.
"We'll find times for it," Corbin said of the big lineup. "It's so good for us. We have to."