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Denver • Jazz forward Paul Millsap no longer recognized the faces. They were just jerseys. Bodies. Anonymous defenders the Nuggets threw at him, hoping someone would do something.
No one could do anything.
Millsap was in the zone again. His touch was golden; every shot sailed through. By the time the barrage was over, the undersized forward so many teams passed on during the 2006 draft was a one-man NBA highlight reel, and Utah was on its way toward knocking off Denver 106-96 on Sunday at the Pepsi Center.
Millsap scored 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting during the fourth quarter. Fourteen points were consecutive, with the mismatched Nuggets switching defenders and calling a timeout to no avail.
Denver (8-5) could temporarily stop the game. But it couldn't touch Millsap.
"I just found a rhythm, found a zone, and my teammates did a great job of finding me and going to me, and I just knocked down shots," said Millsap, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
The 14-point flurry started via a slam dunk, with 9 minutes, 48 seconds left in the fourth. It ended with a 17-foot fadeaway 4:42 later. During the attack, Millsap added three jump shots and two layups. When it was over, Utah's four-point lead had swelled to 12, and the Jazz (8-4) were on the edge of proving their worth in a game coach Tyrone Corbin badly wanted.
"He did a great job," Corbin said. "He is a mismatch, and he has improved every year."
Utah center Al Jefferson went a step further than his coach.
Last season, the Jazz's Big Two often had huge offensive nights, while Millsap unleashed games he'll remember for the rest of his career.
But Jefferson acknowledged 2011-12 already feels different and better. He's learned how to give Millsap space and make their partnership work on both sides of the court. And when opponents zero in on Big Al, The Warrior makes them pay.
"When they started doubling me and it cooled me off, that's when he just took over," Jefferson said. "Me and him at the 4 and 5, people are going to have to start respecting that. Hopefully this will be a learning point for them."
While Millsap again proved his mettle, the Jazz continued to prove their worth.
Beating injury-plagued teams such as Milwaukee, New Orleans and New Jersey at home was one thing. Coming within minutes of knocking off the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime was another. But pounding the Nuggets in Denver, then moving into second place in the Northwest Division during the same night? That's the type of win that matters: a victory young, unproven teams rely on to prove doubters are in the dark.
"They don't have to talk about us. They don't have to say we're one of the top-10 [teams]. We don't care," Jefferson said. "We're just worrying about what we got here, and we're going to stick together and do what we do best."
Jefferson cautioned against becoming overconfident, reminding a reporter that Utah looked sharp last season only to fall apart. But the 2011-12 Jazz are deeper and younger, Utah is buying into team defense and a selfless offense, and everything from trust to communication have improved since training camp began.
Now, the Jazz are staring at seven of their next eight games in Salt Lake City. And Utah 8-2 in its last 10 contests only sits behind Chicago as the hottest team in the NBA.
Fifty-four games, a brutal road schedule and a long grind remain. But after hitting the road to cool off a Nuggets team that recently downed Miami, the Jazz can no longer be ignored.
To guard Raja Bell, it's this simple: "8-4 is 8-4. You can't argue with that."