A few weeks ago when his team visited Atlanta for a game against the Hawks, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was asked why he, as coach of the Eastern Conference team in the NBA All-Star Game, had selected Hawks forward Paul Millsap as a reserve.
"Well, their team winning, first and foremost," Vogel said. "I think all of us coaches try to reward winning teams. I think it’s sort of historically the way the vote has gone."
At the time, the Hawks were third in the Eastern Conference. That night the Pacers got the Hawks started on a five-game losing streak that Atlanta has taken into the All-Star Break, and which has sunk them to fifth.
Vogel’s point was two-fold: As a team, the Hawks deserved an All-Star but, individually, Millsap, particularly in the absence of Al Horford, had earned it for his team play. Since Horford, a two-time All-Star center, was lost for the season on Dec. 26 with a torn pectoral muscle, Millsap has increased his contribution, averaging 18.7 points in those 22 games. For the season, Millsap has averaged 17.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, which are trending near his career highs. (If Millsap had averaged 18.7 points for the season, he would rank 26th in the league.)
"On top of that, he’s filled in admirably for Al Horford," Vogel said. "I know he’s played alongside Al a lot when Alâ¦ was playing. But just stepping up his offensive production, defensive leadership, winning the wars in the trenches, defensive rebounding. He’s a good defender. He’s a good rebounder. You’ve got to account for him â¦ He’s a big part of their success."
All-Star games — the NBA game, in particular — are often about flash. In a way, by citing the traits that Vogel — leader of the league’s top defensive team and someone who prizes those values — did, he’s scoring a victory for basketball substance over style. Pretty rare in this day and age.
Making his first All-Star Game appearance this weekend, Millsap, 29, has handled the honor with typical humility.
"To know that all your hard work’s not in vain, it’s being recognized," he told the Hawks’ Web site of what it means to him. "I’m very grateful that the coaches voted me. That’s one of the highest levels of respect you can get."
Vogel and the East coaches are not the only ones who have noticed Millsap’s contribution. The Hawks have slipped to 25-26 but to many, they easily could be viewed as overachievers in coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season. In that regard, Millsap’s nomination is perhaps a tip of the cap to Budenholzer, who, as the son of a coach, represents something of a coach’s coach.
"I think (Millsap) has stepped up significantly with Al being out and I think that they’ve been more impressive without him than with him," said Spurs coach Greg Popovich, who mentored Budenholzer for nearly two decades, when his team visited Atlanta in January. "Because he’s a big piece of what happens on that basketball team and I think it’s really a good sign that the coaches and the players are on the same page because with the system (Budenholzer)’s using, when people go down, other people can fill in.
"They might not be as talented but they can play the minutes and the guys that were starting, guys like Millsap, can play even better because the guys coming in don’t bring it down, they keep it going because they understand what’s going on at both ends of the court."
In the games before the break, the Hawks bore the look of a worn-out team. The burden of Horford’s loss, of missing starting point guard Jeff Teague for a couple of games, of playing without Pero Antic, who initially performed well in Horford’s absence but has missed three weeks with an ankle injury â all of it appeared to catch up with them.
The 6-foot-8, 253-pound Millsap has helped to carry the Hawks but he has his limits. Maybe with the benefit of rest from the break and the impending return of Antic, the Hawks will turn things around.
But for one weekend, from an Atlanta perspective, the All-Star Game will help to shine a light on Millsap for his contribution to the Hawks.