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How Nate McMillan went from hesitantly accepting interim tag to leading Hawks to improbable playoff run

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 6/27/2021 Vincent Goodwill

Nate McMillan was hesitant.

The then-Atlanta Hawks assistant coach was months into his new position but facing an offer to take over for the recently fired Lloyd Pierce, the man who brought him to Atlanta after McMillan was dismissed by the Indiana Pacers.

The Hawks were in Miami at the time, a young team that underachieved by the organization’s standards but not by many around the league. Pierce was a young coach with a sterling reputation, endorsed and supported around the NBA.

Something hadn’t clicked, the team was dealing with injuries to key players and continuity hadn’t been developed. McMillan knew the organization’s goal was to take the next step, but upon agreeing to take a position on Pierce’s staff didn’t want to be the lead assistant.

“I’m coming down to assist,” McMillan told Yahoo Sports recently, with an emphasis on “assist.” “If I come down, and I'd be on your bench, and you drop a couple games, the media is just going to start talking.”

Pierce said he didn’t care about that, that he only wanted McMillan’s experience and wisdom on his side. Before Pierce called, McMillan wasn’t planning on retiring, but wanted to take some time to figure out his next step.

Taking some time off seemed attractive.

“Do I want to sit out a year and see what happens? I still wanted to coach, and after talking with Coach Pierce and hearing his vision, he wanted to get to the next level,” McMillan said. “Which was win. They were rebuilding, but they wanted to win. I thought it would be OK, go down and assist and not deal with the other stuff.”

Replacing Pierce was the last thing he wanted to do, and it took some prodding — from Pierce, of all people — before agreeing to take over.

“They wanted to name me head coach; I had to take some time to think about that,” McMillan said. “I talked with Coach Pierce, he basically said he thought that I should take it and move forward.”

McMillan took over the team and went from 14-20 to a healthier version of itself, the best record in the East since, and arrived as the most unlikely participant in the conference finals. But that day in Miami, McMillan faced a fractured, young team.

Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan took over a fractured, young team and turned them into an unlikely Eastern Conference finals participant. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan took over a fractured, young team and turned them into an unlikely Eastern Conference finals participant. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Nate McMillan's twist of fate after Pacers firing

There was speculation of players not getting along, and rumors of the Hawks’ star, Trae Young, not being on the same page as Pierce. It’s common on younger teams in the league, players trying to balance between individual goals and team objectives.

“If you want to look at someone to blame for this change, don’t start pointing fingers,” McMillan said. “Look at yourself, everybody needs to look at themselves as players and coaches. Because we need to be better than we've been. And Coach Pierce had to take the hit.”

The Hawks were in Miami for a back-to-back set, losing the first game in Pierce’s last game then winning McMillan’s debut by 14.

“They had to grow up fast. And real is real,” McMillan said. “You know, so the accountability was put back on them real quick. Lloyd took the hit. Us as head coaches, that happens. It's the same with me and Indiana.”

McMillan sat in the same spot Pierce was in, a somewhat awkward twist of fate. McMillan’s Pacers had overachieved without All-Star Victor Oladipo, going 39-26 before the season was suspended in 2019-20.

By the time of the restart, Oladipo returned but wasn’t himself. Domantas Sabonis was out with injury and some player discord was bubbling. Indiana was swept by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat and unexpectedly, McMillan was fired.

“When it happened, it was a shock. I shouldn't say shocked, because I don’t think you can be surprised in this league,” McMillan said. “You go into the playoffs and you get swept. But the fact they’d already extended me, I wasn’t able to figure that out.”

In Indiana, he was branded as old school and inflexible — often code words for Black coaches in the NBA. The Pacers overachieved in regular seasons but didn’t win a playoff series in his four years, falling in seven games to LeBron James’ last Cleveland Cavaliers team in 2018 and facing injuries and bad luck in the others.

McMillan had coached offensive-minded teams in Seattle with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, his first stop, and patchwork teams in Portland that couldn’t get their health right with injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. They were solid but not spectacular.

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“The coaching is changing in the sense of, of how you coach and the players that are coming in, the players are much younger,” McMillan said. “And for most of my career, I've always had younger teams. I've always had teams that were either rebuilding or, just that young group.”

The Pacers team that supposedly had no use for McMillan didn’t make it out of the play-in tournament, with its players battling McMillan’s replacement Nate Bjorkgren all year — resulting in his firing and being replaced by Rick Carlisle.

Helping Trae Young learn to manage his game

So now, it’s the most unlikely mix — the old-school McMillan and the new-school Hawks. Isley Brothers meets Quavo. Or rather, in the case of the NBA’s newest breakout star Trae Young, Dr. Lee meets Devon Miles — characters from the 2002 film “Drumline” played by Orlando Jones and Nick Cannon, respectively.

In the movie, Cannon was a young and talented drummer in a college band, mixing his style and arrogance into a system that was very regimented, organized. Sort of like Young played loose and free in ways that can make coaches cringe when that wildness goes unharnessed.

“I told him, I don't want to take away your game,” McMillan said. “But you have to understand how to manage a team and organize a team to have success.”

He compares Young to a Ferrari before he took over, going one speed. McMillan said Young played the fourth quarter like it was the first quarter. Oftentimes, it led to a young team losing games it shouldn’t have.

But he still encouraged Young to keep his aggressiveness, and it’s been seen many times through this playoff run — the scoring bursts against Philadelphia, the clutch play against the New York Knicks and his 48-point special in Game 1 of the conference finals against Milwaukee.

a man standing in front of a building: Nate McMillan has encouraged Trae Young to stay aggressive, but has helped him harness it to manage his game and lead the Hawks on this playoff run. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Nate McMillan has encouraged Trae Young to stay aggressive, but has helped him harness it to manage his game and lead the Hawks on this playoff run. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I don’t want to take away your speed,” McMillan said. “You just got to understand the conditions in which you're working with. I’ve said to him, you’ve got that Ferrari, and it's ice outside. You can't run it like it's dry pavement.

“I don't want to take his game away because it's a beautiful game. It's an effective game. But it's just helping him learn how to manage that game.”

Young has shot less but raised his efficiency. His assists (9.4, second in the NBA) stayed flat under McMillan, but his turnovers went down. The Hawks played more winning basketball, so Young’s effect goes beyond the raw numbers.

After Game 1 against the Bucks, Young repeatedly praised McMillan, saying, “It’s great to have a coach who believes in you.”

That’s where McMillan brought in the “Drumline” analogy with Young during one of their early conversations.

“Nick was new school. And he was about going and putting it down. And the director [Jones] was about old school,” McMillan said. “Give me your new school. But just mix a little old school. Slow it down. Because there's gonna be some times where you need to slow it down and get us organized and run an offense.

“Give me your new school, but give Coach Mac some old school. I'm a fan of old school. You know, but I have to be a fan of new school. So I got new school on my end. What ends up happening? The band goes out there and they show out.”

Hawks find balance between being serious and having fun

In the movie and on the floor, McMillan has been more flexible, or at least more loose.

While he was fined before the start of the playoffs by stating the league wanted the Knicks to be successful, McMillan said the comments were taken out of context. But it freed up his team to play without pressure, and they’ve stolen every Game 1 on the road thus far.

“I wanted them to understand it’s still basketball. It’s basketball, man,” McMillan joked. 
“And I wanted them as a young group to not go in tight.”

In the visitor’s locker room, there’s a consistent message on the whiteboard: “Have fun.”

The preparation is still the same, the seriousness of the playoffs isn’t understated. But he’s found a balance.

“I've had teams that have gone into the playoffs, and they've been young teams where they were tight,” McMillan said. “I know that this team can't play tight. And I didn't want to handcuff them.”

How else could the Hawks win a Game 5 on the road against Philadelphia, blow a chance to close it out at home, only to come back and win a third road game in the series in Game 7? With different unsung heroes every night, playing with no fear and the right amount of pressure from their coach.

“Understand what we need to do. And go in and do that,” McMillan said. “But you play with confidence, and you have fun doing it.”

Young has become a road villain, but embraces it. John Collins wears T-shirts of himself dunking on opponents, like his alley-oop over 76ers center Joel Embiid. The team has an identity that embraces the new Atlanta, in a way maybe other versions of the Hawks did not fully lean into.

All the while, old-school McMillan sits back and watches as they celebrate with Quavo in the locker room in Philadelphia after Game 7 while still prepping them for another Game 1 upset 48 hours later.

And some time in the future, McMillan will decide if he wants to stay on as Hawks coach for the future — after this magical, unexpected run is over.

“When it was offered to me, they asked me to take over this for the year. We'll talk at the end of the year. And basically, that's where I've left it,” McMillan said. “I’m OK with that.”

But he did say, “It’s great to be back in the game. To be able to advance has been really gratifying."

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