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.
"It gives you somewhat of a sense that you can compete against a team," the Jazz coach said. "But this time it's going to be on their home floor.
"It's a different time for us. We need a big win and it's at this time of year that everybody's trying to position themselves for the playoffs, so we're ready for the challenge. It's going to be a good test. You've got to love this time of year and you've got to love these kinds of games."
Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward realizes that the deck is stacked against he and his teammates, who lost four straight on the road last week.
But he's looking forward to tonight's challenge.
"They're a very talented team," Hayward said of the Thunder. "They score a lot of points and they play well when they're at home. So we've got to take it as a challenge and it'll be a good atmosphere, and it should be fun.
"You can't give them easy looks, especially early in the game to help get 'em going. If you do that, it'll be a long night. We've got to make sure we challenge every shot, especially early, and throw different coverages up.
"We can't give 'em the same look the whole night, they're too good for that. It'll have to be a total team effort."
Jazz center Al Jefferson, who scored 23 points in Utah's victory over the Thunder back on Feb. 12 in SLC, also knows full well that it'll be difficult trying to stop the Thunder on their home court.
But that's what makes this matchup all the more intriguing.
"Oh, most definitely, it's gonna be tough, especially going into Oklahoma," he said. "We have beat 'em before, but going in there and playing against them, especially them coming off a loss last night, you're gonna have to have your focus hat on.
"You're gonna have to be ready because on their home floor you can't make mistakes, you can't give up turnovers, you can't give up offensive rebounds because they're gonna make you pay. So we've just got to come ready to play."
Jefferson said that although the Jazz were able to handle the Thunder almost a month ago, this is a different time and obviously a much different venue.
"A lot has changed since then, especially when you're playing on their home floor," he said. "I feel like when we are playing our best basketball and we're focused, we can beat any team on any floor. But we can't just walk into that game (tonight) and say we done beat 'em before so we've just got to come and think we're gonna do it again. We've got to look at it like, this is a game we must win and we must keep focused and do all the right things, so you just can't go on that last win against them."2 comments on this story
Jefferson said that while Durant and Westbrook are the two guys that make the Thunder go, the Jazz can't let Oklahoma City's other starters — power forward Serge Ibaka, center Kendrick Perkins and shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, along with high-scoring guard Kevin Martin off the bench — get it rolling, or it'll be a tough night for the Utah team.
"If anything, you can't really slow down them two (Durant and Westbrook), you just can't let anybody else beat you," Jefferson said. "You've just got to contain 'em, you're not really gonna slow 'em down because they're great superstars in my opinion.
"You can't let everybody else beat you. You can't let them (the Thunder's terrific tandem) get off and let them other guys go off, too. If they're gonna beat you, let them be the only two to beat you, and I think we've got a better chance that way."