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Matt Calkins: Former Sonics coach Nate McMillan had great success in Seattle. What he’s doing now with Atlanta might be his finest work yet.

UPDATED: Tue., June 22, 2021

The Atlanta Hawks have won 35 of their 50 games since Nate McMillan, center, became the team’s head coach in early March.  (Associated Press)
The Atlanta Hawks have won 35 of their 50 games since Nate McMillan, center, became the team’s head coach in early March. (Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The statement from Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard read as follows: “On behalf of the Simon family and the Pacers organization, I’d like to thank Nate for his years with the team. This was a very hard decision for us to make; but we feel it’s in the best interest of the organization to move in a different direction.”

That was in August , which ended Nate McMillan’s third stint as an NBA head coach. The former Seattle SuperSonics player had spent five years at the helm in Seattle, seven in Portland and four in Indiana.

The Pacers’ firing very well could have spelled the end of his career as a head coach – at least at the NBA level. Three teams, no conference finals – he had some solid stretches for sure, but nothing quite spectacular.

Now, however, he’s front and center in one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history. He will forever be Mr. Sonic in Seattle – but if this keeps going, he may never again have to pay for a meal in Atlanta.

I can’t tell you what the Hawks’ championship odds were on March 1 of this year, but I imagine a $20 bet could have netted one a new car if it hit. They were 14-20, coming off a 20-47 record in the previous season, and had just fired their coach Lloyd Pierce. A playoff berth – even in the perpetually less competitive Eastern Conference – seemed unlikely. But to then grab a No. 5 seed after winning 27 of their next 38? To knock off the top-seeded 76ers in seven games to advance to the conference finals?

It’s been March, April, May and June madness. So what’s been the difference between now and then? That would be one Nate McMillan, the man who took over as interim coach March 1 – the man who’s given Atlanta a legitimate shot at an NBA crown.

“Ever since Coach Mac (McMillan) came in, he’s really been the head of the snake,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter told TNT after Atlanta beat Philly on Sunday night. “He has preached toughness, getting it to ball-handlers and believing in ourselves. We’ve got a young locker room, so we’re a little naive. We’re always believing, always knowing we can win. Now we’ve just got to keep going.”

Does this remind you of anything, Seattleites? Can you remember a team that was in the cellar early on, made a coaching change, then surged up the standings and stormed through the playoffs?

Almost seems like a carbon copy of the 1977-78 Sonics. That team was 5-17 when Bob Hopkins was fired as coach, then finished 47-35 after Lenny Wilkens took over. It ended up losing to the Bullets in seven games in the ’78 Finals before winning the championship the next season.

The Hawks aren’t there yet. Not even close. They still have to beat Milwaukee in the conference finals, and the Bucks may have the game’s best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But in one of the league’s great reclamation projects, McMillan has positioned Atlanta to return to the NBA Finals for the first time in 60 years.

This isn’t the first time McMillan has proven himself as the right man for the job, of course. McMillan provided stability in Portland after the “Jail Blazers era” and, in time, led the Blazers to three straight playoff appearances. Wasn’t his fault Greg Oden never got healthy or Brandon Roy’s knee forced him into retirement.

He also never missed the playoffs during his four years in Indiana, and once he left, the Pacers plunged. Same is true once he stopped coaching the Sonics.

But what he’s doing now is his finest work yet.

After the Hawks’ Game 7 win Sunday, former Sonics coach George Karl tweeted “Does Nate McMillan get the Interim label removed now?!!”

That seems inevitable. Playoffs included, the Hawks are 35-15 under his guidance after starting 14-20.

The bigger question is whether the Hawks can win it all. It once seemed impossible, but is now feasible.

Wasn’t long ago that it seemed Mr. Sonic’s finest coaching days were over. Now it looks like they might just be getting started.

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