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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Former Blazers boss has Pacers in NBA playoff mix again

COURTESY FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan chats with Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts.At first glance, the job Nate McMillan has done with his Indiana Pacers this season has been impressive.

The Pacers are 29-16 and in sixth place in the NBA Eastern Conference heading into Friday night's game at Golden State, the fourth stop on a five-game trip that concludes Sunday in Portland.

Throw in that Indiana has done it without its best player — shooting guard Victor Oladipo — due to a knee injury sustained last January and the case gets stronger.

Oladipo, an All-Star in each of the past two seasons, averaged 24.5 points per game in 2017-18, his last full season. He won't play against the Trail Blazers, with his return ticketed for Wednesday against Chicago.

"Having Victor back will help us," McMillan said in a vast understatement.

Considering Oladipo's absence and that guards Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb and center Myles Turner have missed considerable time due to injuries, McMillan is pleased to have his team firmly in the playoff picture past the midway point of the regular season. He pays homage to his coaching staff, which includes former Blazer assistants Bill Bayno and Dan Burke.

"Our coaches have done a good job keeping our guys ready to play, and the players have gone out and produced," McMillan said. "We've had a ton of injuries, with guys being in and out of our starting lineup, but other guys have stepped in and played well for us. We've been able to stay in the race. That's a credit to the players and to my assistants."

McMillan, 55, has been doing this awhile. He is in his 16th season as a head coach and 20th season on a NBA coaching staff after an excellent 12-year playing career, all with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Going into Friday's game in San Francisco, McMillan's career head-coaching record was 645-576, which puts him 21st on the NBA's all-time win list.

The former Seattle guard got his first coaching opportunity as an assistant to Paul Westphal with the Sonics in 1999-2000. Here McMillan is, more than two decades later, still on an NBA bench.

"When I started, I was taking it one season at a time," he said. "I didn't think about how long it would last. When I retired (as a player), I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I got the opportunity to work with Coach Westphal, and one thing led to another.

"Sometimes, things happen very quickly in the NBA. To be here and be in coaching this long — I never anticipated it happening."

McMillan took over for Westphal early in his second season with the Sonics, 2000-01, and was head coach there for five seasons. In 2005, owner Paul Allen came calling with an offer to coach the Blazers. McMillan took over a team left in shambles by his predecessor, Maurice Cheeks, and Portland finished an NBA-worst 21-61 the first season.

It took McMillan four seasons to get the Blazers to the playoffs, and he did it his final three full campaigns, but never got past the first round. He was fired midway through the 2011-12 season, having compiled a regular-season record of 266-269 in his 6 1/2 seasons with the Blazers.

Asked for memories of his time in Portland, McMillan starts with this: "A great city, a great basketball city. I enjoyed my time there."

Then his tone turned melancholy.

"I can't get over the loss of Mr. Allen," he said, the reference to the long-time Blazer owner's death from cancer in 2018 at age 65. "It just doesn't seem real to me that he is gone. He was the one who brought me down from Seattle and gave me that opportunity to work in his organization. To see a man who gave so much to me, to a community, to a region, to a country, to a world... to be so young, and he's gone.

"When I think of Portland, the first thing I think about is Mr. Allen. And Luke is gone, too."

The reference is to Maurice Lucas, one of the great Blazer players who played with McMillan in Seattle and then coached with him in Portland. Lucas died of cancer in 2010 at 58.

"One of my close friends, gone way too soon," McMillan said. He paused for a moment. "Wow. I don't even know what to say about that.

"When Mr. Allen was offering me that position, if Maurice was not going to be on my staff, I don't know if it would have worked out. I felt like I needed Luke to be there with me. He passed, and now Mr. Allen has, too."

After getting let go by Allen, McMillan wound up as an assistant coach to Frank Vogel in Indiana. After three years, Vogel was fired and McMillan hired to replace him. In his first three seasons, McMillan's teams had winning records but lost in the first round of the playoffs each time.

In Indiana, McMillan's best player not named Oladipo bears a last name familar to Blazer fans. Domantas Sabonis is the son of Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian giant who entertained Rose Garden denizens for seven seasons.

In his fourth NBA season, the 6-11 Domantas is averaging 17.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting .536 from the field.

"I think he's deserving of All-Star recognition," McMillan said. "He has the numbers. His team is winning. He should be in the game."

After losing free-agent starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young, Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard — who formerly held that position in Portland — traded for small forward T.J. Warren and signed free agent guard Brogdon. They have been McMillan's best players other than Sabonis this season.

"Kevin did a good job pulling the roster together after we lost 'Bogie' and Thaddeus," McMillan said.

It's a different world than it was when McMillan began his coaching career more than two decades ago.

"You have to adapt to the players and to all the changes," he said. "When I came started coaching, it was more of an older league. The game was played from the inside out. Post-ups were still a major part of the game. Now the game is much younger. You're dealing with more 19- to-21-year-olds than guys in their 30s. And the game is played from the outside in, from the 3-point line to the rim."

Is it a better game today?

"It's a different game," McMillan said. "The game was a good game 20 years ago. The game now is a good game, too. Just different times. The NBA game still provides good entertainment."

Another pause.

"It's funny, though," he said. "I look at some of these young guys coming into the league. I think about my old friend and teammate (Lucas). I wonder how some of these young guys would do with a physical presence like Luke.

"And it would be fun to put Domantas out there against his father. He's a young, talented player, but his father was a man. I wonder how he would do. They're not playing in the same type of game. It's just a different era."

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@kerryeggers


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