OKLAHOMA CITY — Right when the Utah Jazz are trying to climb back up onto the Western Conference playoff ladder, staring them right in the face is one of the NBA's elite teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And Paul Millsap thinks that could potentially be a good thing.
Millsap, Utah's veteran forward who has missed four of the team's last seven games with ankle and knee injuries, practiced with the team Tuesday and participated in this morning's shootaround. He's rarin' to go for tonight's nationally televised (6 p.m. ESPN) matchup with the Thunder, who own the second-best record (47-17) in the Western Conference.
"I think it's the right time for us," said Millsap, who is Utah's second-leading scorer (15.2 points per game) and rebounder (7.4 per game).
"There's a little pressure on us; we have a little monkey on our back, and it's a good thing for us (as far as) growing, getting better, to see where we're at.
"To come in here against one of those teams, it's a big game for us. If we can win this game, come out of this with a win, it would do a lot for our confidence."
Millsap, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in Utah's 109-94 victory over the Thunder on Feb. 12 at Salt Lake City, will play a key role as the Jazz (33-31), now sitting ninth in the Western Conference standings, try to move back into the playoff picture.
He was glad his most recent injury wound up being only a bruised right knee and quadriceps.
"It's a relief," he said following Wednesday morning's shootaround at Chesapeake Energy Arena. "You don't want it to be anything more serious than it was, and I'm thankful, grateful that it wasn't anything serious.
"But I'm out here trying to get my body right and try to make this run going down the stretch.
"I feel great right now — percentage-wise, I'm 95 to 100. I feel good, my body feels great, now it's just a matter of getting out here and getting in a rhythm and get back going again."
Of course, going up against Oklahoma City on the road will be no easy task.
The Thunder have one of the most dynamic duos in the league in small forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook.
Durant is averaging a league-leading 28.4 points per game along with 7.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists a game. He had 33 points, six rebounds and five assists against the Jazz in their February matchup at SLC. Westbrook adds 23.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists (sixth-best in the league) and 1.84 steals (seventh-best in the league) per game.
"We're going into one of the best teams', if not the best team in the league, home floor," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. "They just lost a game (105-93 to the Spurs on Monday), so it should be a good test for us.
"We're not satisfied with the way we've been playing on the road, and we know this is a great opponent, so it's going to be a tough game on their home floor, but we're up for the challenge."
Corbin said the key thing for his ballclub is to try and dictate the pace of the game and not allow themselves to get in a run-and-gun ballgame with the up-tempo Thunder.
"You've got to control the tempo of the game with them," he said. "You know that Durant and Westbrook are gonna have the ball in their hands a lot; they carry that team, they know who they are. Those guys make big shots and big plays for them, but we've got to control the tempo of the game.
"We can't give them easy baskets. We've got to make 'em work hard for everything they do get."
Corbin said the Jazz might gain a bit of confidence by virtue of knocking off the Thunder in their last meeting. Of course, that was at EnergySolutions Arena, where the Jazz are a much, much better team than they are away from home.
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