When Tyrone Corbin tried Paul Millsap at the three late in last season with Utah headed for the lottery, the move appeared nothing more than a gimmick. So it was no surprise that, despite adding another frontcourt option in rookie Enes Kanter, Corbin scrapped the experiment much of this season. He brought it back on April 2 at Portland, trying to match up with an athletic Blazers frontline. The Jazz rallied to win that game, and Corbin held on to the big lineup as an option to use at times throughout Utah’s playoff push in the month of April.
Saturday’s overtime win over the Orlando Magic was the ultimate triumph for Millsap at small forward. The Jazz played the lineup for the entire second quarter, about five minutes apiece in the third and fourth and the entire extra session. It completely changed the tenor of the game. With the big lineup, Utah outscored Orlando 71-37 (+34 points). That’s remarkable in a game the Jazz won by 10; all other lineups were outscored by 24 points. That’s like two teams at completely opposite extremes within the same game.
Even before then, the big lineup had been dynamite. Entering Saturday’s game, Millsap had played nearly exactly 100 minutes at small forward, per BasketballValue.com. During that span, the Jazz outscored opponents by 23 points, or 11.3 per 100 possessions, on the strength of elite defense. The big lineups had allowed just 86.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 106.4 Utah usually gives up. With Millsap at small forward, the Jazz has tons of size to control the glass and contest shots. Millsap has proven capable of defending bigger opponents on the perimeter. These lineups also almost always feature second-year reserve Derrick Favors, the team’s best interior defender who also helped take away sharpshooter Ryan Anderson Saturday, including blowing up the pick-and-roll the Magic ran with Anderson on the final play of regulation.
The Utah offense suffers to some extent with less outside shooting on the floor. Teams have successfully used zone defense against the Jazz’s big lineups. (Surprisingly, Stan Van Gundy never tried a zone.) This is especially problematic when Millsap plays small forward with the second unit and non-shooter Alec Burks. Lineups with Millsap, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Al Jefferson (with either Devin Harris or Jamaal Tinsley at point guard) have scored a robust 109.6 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by a remarkable 21.5 points per 100 possessions. Just two Utah lineups with more than 50 possessions together have been more effective.
If Utah beats Phoenix on Tuesday to clinch a playoff spot, expect to see plenty more of Millsap at small forward against whatever opponent the Jazz ends up facing.