Hawks in second half: McMillan preaches power of belief

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan makes his point during a timeout. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan makes his point during a timeout. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Nate McMillan preaches from the same bible that coaches have used since mankind began keeping score. Yes, that includes Lloyd Pierce, the fellow McMillan recently supplanted as the Hawks’ lead conductor.

There was nothing new or revelatory in McMillan’s words after the Hawks beat Toronto 121-120 on Tony Snell’s 3-point shot at the buzzer Thursday. A team that couldn’t finish in February is now 3-0 in March, all games the Hawks had to take over in the fourth quarter. In the three games since McMillan moved one seat over after Pierce was fired – the smallest of sample sizes – here are the Hawks repurposing themselves as a 48-minute team for a 48-minute game while putting together a cute little win streak.

“What we have been talking about is believe. Believe in each other. Trust each other. Stay together out there,” McMillan said Thursday night.

All boilerplate stuff, off the discount rack where all of yesterday’s motivational bestsellers end up. But sometimes it’s just nice to see players buy old messages from fresh sources, for however long that new-coach smell lasts.

You want belief? Check out Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari, himself posted on the other side of the arc in those last seconds Thursday. The ball was scarcely out of Snell’s hand when Gallinari was thrusting both arms skyward in celebration. He didn’t need to see it go through the net. He knew the shot was good because Snell was taking it. Snell, who it turns out has been one of the real prizes of GM Travis Schlenk’s very mixed bag of offseason acquisitions, lately has removed doubt from the shooting equation. Just assume now that everything goes in.

So, the second half of the season begins, with a joyous mobbing of an otherwise quiet, background kind of player who just made his first buzzer-beater after nearly eight years a pro. The setting was strange and almost comic: With the Raptors exiled from Canada because of COVID-19, they play their home games in Tampa, where a basketball floor in Florida bears the message, “We the North.” South is the new north. Up is down. But a game-winning shot remains a thing of beauty forever.

The Hawks went into Thursday’s battle of sub-.500 first half teams well-rested, since none were deemed All-Stars. The battle for No. 8 in the East was on, and Toronto was shot through with COVID absences, five players out, three of them starters. It was still a game there for the Hawks to lose, as they fell 15 down with around six minutes to play. Give them credit for fighting the urge.

Too soon to judge McMillan’s effect on the Hawks. How much credit the coach deserves for Thursday’s winning shot is debatable. To hear McMillan tell it himself, Snell wasn’t the first or second option on the coach’s whiteboard for that winning play. The idea was for Trae Young to drive, draw the defense and find John Collins on a lob or Gallinari for the 3. Instead Young spotted Snell wide open and made the smart pass.

But something has connected at least short-term for these Hawks under the new coach. Under Pierce, the fourth quarter had become their Dunkirk. But in their past three, the Hawks have outscored the three Florida teams – Miami, Orlando and Toronto – by an average of 14 points in the fourth quarter. That’s a trend that just may pull back a few eyeballs that were threatening to look elsewhere at the All-Star break.

Get ready, here’s that B-word again, employed when Snell was asked the difference a few weeks have made for the Hawks.

“Just believing in ourselves,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of games now where we’re starting to get used to each other. Just believing. The more we play together, the more we get used to playing to each other’s strengths and continue to build from there.”

The big question of the Hawks’ second half is how the team will respond to interim coach McMillian, a guy with vastly more head coaching experience than the one he replaced (16 seasons between Seattle, Portland and Indiana). The only logic behind the Hawks pulling the plug on Pierce at midseason was to install someone who could get them to the playoffs. Otherwise, the move is an empty gesture.

As McMillan put it earlier in the day, that places considerable onus on him and the players to respond to the jolt of a coaching change.

“These things happen, you move forward, which is what the players are doing,” he said. “The focus is on us now when you have a coach to have to take the fall for what has happened this season. Now that focus is on the guys who are here. You have to get it done, and we’ve talked about that.”

Interim coaches in this town have provided wildly conflicting messages. Brian Snitker went from placeholder to a manager of the year who has won three division titles with the Braves. Last season, interim Raheem Morris started 3-1 with the Falcons in mid-stream, but finished 1-6, his candidacy for the full-time gig shattered. All we know is that McMillan’s audition for a more permanent job in Atlanta has begun just as well as it possibly could.

The second half for the Hawks will be a blur, games coming in rat-a-tat fashion, 35 in the next 65 days. Little time for the new coach to splice his DNA to a team. Off days will be as much about recovery as practice. It’s nothing profound nor revolutionary that he’ll supply now. If McMillian just can keep some semblance of belief alive for two more months, he will have made a strong case for himself.

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