By Devon POV Mason & JR Gamble
All Nate McMillan has done since taking over as the interim coach of the Atlanta Hawks is “WIN”.
Following his young teams’ Game 7 victory in Philadelphia over the top-seeded 76ers, McMillan now has the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals since the 2014-15 season.
The Hawks took down the No.1 seeded Sixers squad as the No.5 seed in the East. This marks Atlanta’s first trip to the Conference Finals in six years, and McMillan’s first-ever trip to the Conference Finals in his coaching career.
Prior to this run, his best outing was a second-round exit as the head coach to the Seattle SuperSonics in 2004-05.
In Game 7, the Hawks found an unsung hero in the form of 6’7 sharpshooter Kevin Huerter. Time and time again, they found him matched up on the smaller and defensively challenged Seth Curry and the former Maryland Terrapin exploited that matchup to the tune of 27 points on 10-18 shooting.
Huerter a surprise 2018 first-round pick after just two seasons at UMD, said McMillan has been an integral part of the turnaround and the instilling of confidence in the young team.
It was the kind of unsuspecting performance that the Brooklyn Nets couldn’t get from any of its supporting cast.
“Ever since Coach Mac (McMillan) came in, he’s really been the head of the snake,” Huerter said after the game on TNT. “He’s preached toughness, getting it to the ball handlers and believing in ourselves. We’ve got a very young locker room, so at times we tend to be a little naive. We’re always believing, always knowing we can win. Now we’ve just got to keep going.”
In 2019 we felt that Nate McMillan should have been NBA Coach of the Year for helping the Indiana Pacers remain a Top 3 team in the East for much of the season without Victor Oladipo.
After all, he is no new jack. He was a super solid point guard for 12 NBA seasons with Seattle.
Then he coached the Seattle Supersonics from the 2000-2001 season to the 2004-05 season before moving onto Portland for a coaching tenure that lasted 43 games into the 2011-12 season. McMillan made the playoffs five times with these teams, before being fired and landing as an assistant in Indiana for three seasons.
McMillan, who averaged 6.1 assists over his NBA career, was lucky enough to get another shot at a head coaching gig when Indiana promoted him. After taking over for former coach Frank Vogel, he won 42 games and was swept in the first round of the playoffs in his first season. Some folks wanted Larry Bird and Co. to give him the traditional quick hook on African-American coaches.
Then the McMillan Effect kicked in. Before the 2017-18 season, the Pacers were projected to be a lottery team, but ended up one of the biggest surprises in the NBA with a 48-34 record and a No. 5 seed in the East.
When the former NC State guard assumed the reigns in Atlanta after the firing of Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks were an underachieving an downright abysmal (14-20).
With the team spiraling toward another losing for the fourth straight season. Since that point, McMillan has led Atlanta to a (35-15) record — 20 games above (.500) — and just four wins from the NBA Finals.
To make the situation even more impactful, three African-American coaches remain in this four team race to the NBA championship. McMillan, Clippers coach Ty Lue (already a championship coach) and Phoenix Suns coaching guru Monty Williams.
Atlanta will now turn it’s sights quickly to the Milwaukee Bucks who upset the Brooklyn Nets in an epic seven-game series which ended on Saturday in an overtime thriller, with Durant airballing the potential game-winner over Jru Holiday.
Regardless of what the Hawks do moving forward, there’s very little to no doubt that McMillan will end up as the head coach minus the interim tag.
Hawks star Trae Young, who struggled all of Game 7 until the fourth quarter, said he’d be surprised if McMillan isn’t back with the team after this ridiculous and unexpected run.
“I’m not surprised they haven’t announced, because, I don’t know, it could become a distraction,” Young said earlier in the playoffs. I think everybody kind of knows what’s going to be coming. We’re all winning, so it’s not anything that I feel like he should be worried about or anything like that. It’s just timing. We’re in the playoffs, it’s the end of the season. I don’t think it’s something they want to take focus off the team right now. I mean, obviously, he’s done a great job with helping us turn this around, so I’d be surprised if he’s not with us next year.”