Nate McMillan: From journeyman to the Hawks’ magic man

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young during a time out after falling behind 57-41 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday, June 25, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young during a time out after falling behind 57-41 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday, June 25, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Nate McMillan is 56. He has worked in the NBA – first as a player, then as some sort of coach — since 1986. He has been the head coach of four teams. Until this postseason, his teams — actually a team, singular, that being the 2004-05 Seattle SuperSonics — had won one playoff series. His postseason record was 17-36.

As interim head coach — yes, still the “interim,” and I know not why — of these Hawks, McMillan has led his team to two series victories. After the barely believable doings of Tuesday night, the Hawks are two wins from the NBA Finals, closer than at any time since they moved here from St. Louis in 1968. A cynic might say that McMillan happened to inherit the team with Trae Young, but that would miss two key points:

1. Young hadn’t done much winning until McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce on March 1.

2. Young didn’t play in Tuesday’s Game 4, which the Hawks won 110-88.

When McMillan took over for Pierce, the Hawks weren’t positioned to make even these expanded playoffs. They wound up as the East’s No. 5 seed. They beat the No. 4 Knicks in five games and the top-seeded 76ers in seven. The Hawks trailed the No. 3 Bucks 2-1 and were without Young for Game 4, and if you had to bet on a series outcome as of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, your best guess would have been Bucks in five. But what was it the State Farm Arena crowd began chanting around 10:30?

“Hawks in six! Hawks in six!”

Here’s a coach who’d known little playoff success in any of his three stops; a coach who was fired by the Pacers on Aug. 30, 2020, barely two weeks after receiving a one-year extension; a coach whose playoff record with Indiana was 3-16 and whose teams were swept three times. Here’s a team that hadn’t won a game in the NBA’s penultimate playoff round since April 15, 1969, when there were no conferences and the Hawks were based in the West Division; a team that had won more than a single series only once in its Atlanta manifestation; a team that hadn’t graced the playoffs since 2017, when a new general manager decided it was going nowhere and tore up everything to start over.

Here’s that coach, and here’s that team. Here both stand, two games from playing for a championship.

The best anyone could have hoped when McMillan took charge was for him to stop the rot, for the Hawks to squeak into the playoffs and maybe win a round. In Round 2, the Hawks seemed almost done when they lost games 2 and 3 to Philadelphia and trailed in Game 4 by 18 points. In Round 3, they appeared on the cusp of elimination when they lost games 2 and 3 to Milwaukee and were without Trae Young for Game 4. But they’re still going, and there’s a chance Young could play in Game 5. It would be a shock if the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo plays again anytime soon.

The marriage of Pierce and the Hawks, which looked OK in theory, didn’t work. That can happen with a rebuilding team. People get sick of losing and sicker of each other. McMillan seemed a nice counterpoint — more seasoned, more pragmatic, more defensive-minded — but that was about it. But the new voice related to Young, former point guard to current point guard, in a way that empowered and reenergized the franchise cornerstone. When the cornerstone is happy, the team tends to be happy. Happy teams tend to be winning teams. Winning teams tend to keep winning.

McMillan learned Young wouldn’t be playing in Game 4 an hour before tipoff. The coach told Lou Williams, who’s 34 and who had never started a playoff game, that he’d be starting. Asked his response to McMillan, Williams said, “I said, ‘OK.’ It wasn’t a ‘Remember the Titans’ thing.”

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter during a time out in the final minutes of 113-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 27, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter during a time out in the final minutes of 113-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 27, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Williams scored 21 points and made eight assists. Bogdan Bogdanovic had 20 points and five assists, Kevin Huerter 15 and seven. Young is among the sport’s finest finishers, but in his absence the ball didn’t so much move as it zinged. The Hawks never trailed. Their lead peaked at 25 points. They’ve won twice in this series. The first time, Young scored 48 points. The second time, he scored none.

If that’s not coaching, I don’t know what is. The Hawks, who didn’t guard anybody under Pierce, guard people pretty darn well now. Ask Khris Middleton how much fun it was to have Cam Reddish, who hadn’t played since February before a short stint in the blowout Game 2, chase him on fresh legs. Ask Mike Budenholzer how galling it was to see Antetokounmpo, twice the NBA’s MVP, get outscored in the first half by rookie sub Onyeka Okongwu.

Promoted to serve as a caretaker, McMillan has become the catalyst for everything that has happened and keeps happening. The Hawks are 37-17 on his watch. They’re 6-3 in road playoff games. They’ve been ready for everything and everyone, from Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau to Joel Embiid and Doc Rivers to Giannis and Bud. They’ve lost De’Andre Hunter for the duration. They lost Young at what seemed the worst possible moment, except these Hawks don’t get stuck in moments. They play, as Mike Krzyzewski tells his players, the next play.

Said McMillan, speaking Wednesday morning: “I know we’re on a really special run.” At the same time, he’s not cueing up tape of games 1 and 5 in Madison Square Garden or games 5 and 7 in Philly to revel in the big picture. He has a team to coach, a really good team, and at hand is the greatest opportunity any group of Atlanta-era Hawks have ever had. A rebuilt roster is all grown up. A journeyman coach has outflanked three opponents, all guided by men who have been named the NBA’s coach of the year.

Nate McMillan became head coach to calm the waters. Four months later, we’re wondering if he can walk on those waters. He speaks in a calm but firm voice. He has been around a long time, which means he’s seen everything, but even he hasn’t seen anything like this. He’s Nate the Great. He’s the Hawks’ magic man.

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