ATLANTA — Nate McMillan gives a glimpse of his coaching style when he talks about his playing days.
He never cared about the accolades. Just whatever it took to win a basketball game.
"A guy who put his nose in everything," recalled McMillan, who was a second-round draft pick out of North Carolina State in 1986 and spent his entire 12-year NBA career with the Seattle SuperSonics, averaging 5.9 points, 6.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game
"I wasn't a guy who pouted about minutes or rotations or shots or points or any of that," added McMillan, a 6-foot-5 guard who led the league in steals in 1994. "I tried to be a glue guy who made his teammates better."
He has certainly made the Hawks a lot better since he took over as interim head coach. The team was plodding along at 14-20 when third-year head coach Lloyd Pierce was fired at the start of March, just before Atlanta hosted the NBA All-Star Game.
McMillan, who had joined Pierce's staff before this season, was elevated to the top post. Since then, the Hawks have been one of the league's best teams, finishing the regular season with a 27-11 sprint to secure their first trip to the playoffs since 2017.
The only teams to win more in the final 38 games of the regular season were the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets, seeded second and third in the Western Conference playoffs. The only team to match the fifth-seeded Hawks in the Eastern Confrence were the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
"You see the results," Atlanta guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said. "Coaching is a crucial part of our success. A lot of teams are talented in this league, but they're not under control. He did that. He brought a little bit of control to this team. He helped us get our wins."
McMillan also brought a toughness — the trait he exhibited during his dozen years with the Sonics — that the Hawks sorely needed. Under Pierce, the team continually wilted in the fourth quarter, with 13 of 20 losses by 10 or fewer points. The dynamic has totally changed since McMillan took over: Atlanta is 11-5 in games decided by no more than 10 points.
This is a bit of redemption for the 56-year-old, who had previously been a head coach for Seattle (2000-05), the Portland Trail Blazers (2005-12) and the Indiana Pacers (2016-20). Then again, McMillan still has to prove he can win in the playoffs.
Last year, after guiding the Pacers to a 45-28 record despite myriad injuries, he was fired on the heels of a second straight sweep in the opening round of the postseason. As a head coach, McMillan is 1-9 in postseason series, with his lone victory coming way back in 2005.
"For me, this is a different team and we're going into the playoffs for the first time with this group," McMillan said. "Whatever people want to say, I'm not concerned about that. The focus is me getting this team prepared for this playoffs — not validating."
This is what the Hawks had in mind when they began a major rebuild in 2017, completely overhauling a team that had posted the top record in the East and made it to the conference finals just two seasons earlier.
Focusing on the draft, Atlanta assembled the core of its team, notably point guard Trae Young and power forward John Collins. After being one of eight teams left out of the bubble in last year's pandemic-affected season, the Hawks had plenty of money to spend in free agency, allowing them to sign Bogdanovic and top bench player Danilo Gallinari. A key trade just before the 2020 shutdown amid the coronavirus outbreak brought in center Clint Capela, who led the NBA in rebounding while averaging more than two blocks a game.
But McMillan, it seems, was the one who brought it all together. In a bit of a surprise, he wasn't among the three finalists for the coach of the year award announced Thursday.
"He helped us a lot," Capela said. "I just felt like he really he helped a lot of guys to step up, to just be more aggressive defensively and offensively. He really helped a lot of guys. He definitely deserves big credit for the team's success."
McMillan's blunt demeanor turned up again as the Hawks prepared to face another resurgent franchise, the fourth-seeded New York Knicks, in the first round. The best-of-seven series' opener is at 7 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
With nearly a week to prepare, McMillan tried to instill an underdog mentality in his team by making it clear he thinks most of the nation — the NBA, even — is rooting for the big-market Knicks to advance in their first playoff appearance since 2013. He even shared his thoughts with reporters.
"I've talked about that to the team a lot," McMillan said. "I've gone as far as saying the league wants this, they need this. New York, this is a big market. It's a big market for the league. New York has been out of the playoffs for a number of years. This is a team that our league, they want to see, they want to see New York in the playoffs."
McMillan also implied the referees will be favoring the Knicks, making it tough for his team to get close calls.
"It's real. We're going to have to play through that," he said. "It's going to be physical. Probably a lot of calls are not going our way."
The league was not amused by McMillan's comments. He was slapped with a $25,000 fine Thursday, adding an entirely new dynamic to the Hawks-Knicks showdown before it even begins.
Rest assured, though: McMillan's players have his back.
"Guys listen to him. He has a good presence about himself," forward De'Andre Hunter said. "He's a genuine guy. I feel like that's the best thing for me. He's genuine."