Nate McMillan, Hawks’ head coach for next two games, on what he sees from team

Credit: Kim Klement/AP file photo

Credit: Kim Klement/AP file photo

When Lloyd Pierce paid Nate McMillan a visit after the 2020 season, McMillan immediately liked the plan Pierce had laid out for 2021.

“The plan was to do what they pretty much did, to add veterans to the roster, this young roster, and try to take that next step, which is to win games and possibly get into the playoffs,” said McMillan, who ended up joining the Hawks staff as an assistant coach.

When he was still head coach of Indiana last season, before he was fired after suffering a first-round playoff sweep against Miami, McMillan gave Pierce a phone call after a narrow Pacers win to compliment Pierce on the Hawks’ scrappiness. With Pierce flying home to Atlanta on Tuesday for the birth of his second child, and McMillan taking over interim head coaching duties for two games in Boston, McMillan spoke highly of Pierce and the job he’s doing even as the injury-plagued Hawks have struggled lately, losing seven of their past eight games and falling to 11-16.

“There’s only one other coach that I’ve worked with that I’ve seen work as hard as Lloyd, and that’s Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski),” McMillan said in his first time meeting with the media as a member of the Hawks staff. “These two guys do not sleep. They are always preparing themselves for their teams, and getting their team ready to go.”

“... The guys are competing. We’re not winning games the way we’d like to, but they continue to compete, and I think that’s definitely a credit to what Lloyd is doing with this team, keeping them lifted and keeping them prepared to go out and play and compete and give themselves a chance to win.”

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With extensive head coaching experience, McMillan is the natural choice to take the reins for the next two games. He won’t make any major adjustments, he said, and will follow Pierce’s system, emphasizing playing a full 48 minutes and leaving their fourth-quarter woes behind, being more physical defensively and making more plays down the stretch.

He also wants the Hawks to prioritize staying organized late in games and making the opposing defense work.

The only thing that will hopefully be different is the result, as the Hawks will have the chance to break a four-game losing streak.

“We’re going to go with what we’ve been trying to condition our guys to do all season long, be physical defensively, execute, put together a 48-minute game,” McMillan said. “(Pierce) pretty much basically said, ‘You got it now, coach Mac, and you guys know what we need to do,’ and we go out and do that. But you can’t make any major changes as far as what you want to do out there, except for our play.”

This isn’t too much of a change for him, McMillan said, as even when he’s in his assistant role, Pierce wants him to think like a head coach and give guidance to all the coaches, whether it’s helping Pierce himself with in-game adjustments, assistant coach Melvin Hunt with the defense or assistant coach Chris Jent with the offense.

“My approach to the game, coach Pierce wants me to watch it as a head coach because basically what I was brought here to do is really assist all the coaches in all aspects of the game,” McMillan said. “Game preparation, game management, so he wants me thinking and basically reacting as a head coach on that sideline, to help him as far as timeout decisions, play-calling, adjustments that need to be made. So I’m not sitting over there as just an assistant. I am assisting, but I’m assisting all aspects of the game, and with all the coaches.”

McMillan also isn’t a stranger to handling young teams.

The Hawks feel their nearing the end of their rebuild this season, but still have several young players who haven’t been a part of a winning season in the NBA yet. Learning how to close out a narrow win, McMillan said, is one thing evading the Hawks right now.

Obviously, it’s a process doesn’t happen overnight, he added. But the defensive-minded coach wants the Hawks to focus on the three C’s: staying calm, clear and connected in the final stretch of games.

“It’s a young team; I’ve had three of these,” McMillan said. “In Seattle, I had a young team. When I went to Portland for the first time, and started in Portland, it was a young team. In Indiana, we made a big trade for Paul George and we all of a sudden got younger, with a young Victor Oladipo and (Domantas) Sabonis. So I’ve seen this, and what we’re seeing right now is a young team that is not finishing games.

“They’ve got to learn how to finish ballgames. We’ve been in most of these games for three quarters. We’ve played good basketball for 36 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and the last three or the last minute of the game, we’re just not executing, we’re not making those breaks.”

As far as if or when he’ll make a more permanent return to head coaching, McMillan said he’ll think about that after this season, and right now he’s focusing on helping the Hawks find a rhythm.

“My focus is really on the Hawks and trying to assist (Pierce) on what he is trying to do here,” McMillan said. “After the season, we’ll see what happens. But my focus, I signed on to and knew what I was going to be coming into, and what I needed to do, as far as joining coach Pierce’s staff as an assistant and this is the role that I wanted. And we’re going to try to turn this thing around, now.”