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What do past playoff results reveal about Nate McMillan’s direction for the Hawks in the playoffs?

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan has plenty of postseason experience. The young Hawks, however, have little, as only five out of the 17 active roster players have been a part of playoff proceedings past. The team will have to learn on the fly, as they are pressed into a competitive series this upcoming week.

Much has been made of McMillan’s postseason record, which consists of nine series losses in ten tries and no advancement beyond the first round in over 15 years. But how much of this criticism is fair? In addition, the Hawks have a golden opportunity this year to do something that hasn’t been done since 2015 — win a postseason series. What will it take to pull this off?

Seattle SuperSonics tenure

This may come as a shock to recent fans reading this but there was once a beloved team in Seattle. McMillan had a long playing career before starting his head coaching career in the Pacific Northwest in the same way as he did in Atlanta, taking over in an interim role for Paul Westphal in 2000-01. The following season, he guided the Sonics to the playoffs before falling to the 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-five first round.

After narrowly missing the playoffs in the next two seasons, 2004-05 represented their best chance at an extended run. The Sonics sported the second best offense in the league on a per possession basis behind the shooting of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. They took down a Kings team in five games as a 3-seed that had been declining from their early 2000s peak but still possessed a lot of collective firepower. However, they would fall to the future champion Spurs in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals. Considering what the Spurs went on to do, it’s hard to call this particular instance a disappointing result.

Portland Trail Blazers tenure

McMillan moved a few hours down I-5 and took over a rebuilding Portland team that very offseason. The Blazers would not reach the playoffs until his fourth season in charge in 2008-09. This season, they were led by breakout star Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge to the best offensive rating in the league while being the slowest paced team.

They matched up against a 5-seeded Houston Rockets as the 4-seed, but only one game separated the two in the standings. While both stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady struggled with injury this postseason, and a scrappy and defense-first Rockets squad would upset the Blazers, winning four games to two. In fact, neither team would crack 95 points in any of the last four games of the series. Considering the pieces Houston was missing, this series could certainly fall at the feet of the head coach to fail to figure out a winning solution.

The next season the Blazers essentially ran it back. However by the playoffs, Brandon Roy’s knees had begun to give him some of the same issues he had encountered in his high school and college days. He would play in only three of the six games in a series loss.

This would be a similar motif to McMillan’s final postseason run with the team the following year against the Dallas Mavericks, who would also go on to win the NBA Championship. Despite an emotional Game 4 that saw Roy deliver a classic final moment for Portland fans — leading the Blazers back from 23 down to win — Roy clearly struggled to stay on the floor, and the team would fall in six games in the first round for the third consecutive year.

For all three of these seasons, the Trail Blazers finished last in pace — as has been a long running theme in McMillan-coached sides. Certainly the Blazers would have been more formidable given better health from talisman Brandon Roy but even still, Portland had middling regular seasons and were always long shots to make real noise beyond the first 82 games.

Indiana Pacers tenure

The last stop for McMillan ended unceremoniously, being escorted out of the postseason in four straight games from the 2020 Orlando bubble by the Miami Heat despite being the higher seed. It began the same way in 2016-17 via a sweep at the hands of a LeBron James Cavalier squad — with which the Pacers had forged a minor rivalry.

Sandwiched between those performances was a seven game thriller series against the same Cavaliers squad and a sweep from the re-emerging Boston Celtics. As a result of a 3-16 postseason record in Indiana, and clear signs of a locker room rift, McMillan was let go and ended up on the bench under Lloyd Pierce to begin this season.

I need not rehash the happenings since that time. Again, these were merely better than average Pacers squads, as opposed to true contenders. Despite being swept in three out of four series, Indiana was not favored to win in any of them save for the final one — a postseason which would see Miami continue all the way to the Finals.

So what does that mean for how McMillan wants his Atlanta Hawks to attack this postseason opportunity? Coming down the stretch of the regular season is when many coaches look to pare down their postseason rotation, and this season is no different. In a May 12 matchup against Washington with just about everyone available minus De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, McMillan deployed a nine-man rotation, and this might be one he returns to in a first round series, with Hunter substituted in for Hill or Snell (seen below via Popcorn Machine).

Many of his sides have featured dynamic duos, which McMillan has rightfully leaned on for heavy minutes toward the latter stages of a series, like the Gary Payton and Desmond Mason as well as Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis guard/forward pairs often eclipsing 40 minutes a game when healthy in the Seattle postseason appearances. Look for that to mirror that in the minute usage of Trae Young and John Collins should the first round series become a tight one.

Trae Young, in particular, has made a habit out of struggling in new situations before regaining his footing. This was the trend in his first Summer League, NBA preseason and regular season, hitting some choppy weather before righting the ship. It remains to be seen if this will be the case in his first postseason action, but if so the veteran Lou Williams has experience in spades and can step in if necessary.

The best parallel, with hopefully better results from a fan perspective, might be one of the recent Pacers build. Those teams were deep, with a strong interior defender (Clint Capela in place of Myles Turner) and a number of auxiliary shooters like C.J. Miles and Bojan Bogdanovic.

Still, Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (no relation) is shooting from deep at level unmatched by either of those two, shooting a blistering 49.5% from three on 9.2 attempts per game since March 30. He figures to also play heavy minutes, even probably pairing with career 37.6% 3PG% shooter Kevin Huerter in the backcourt in minutes that Young sits, eschewing a more conventional backup point guard.

Also, like these Hawks, McMillan has often been at the head of solidly good but not great sides who have earned no higher than the 4-seed in the past, typically thought of as first round fodder. In addition, injuries have often roiled his teams in the past like the tumultuous regular season this time around, although Atlanta may enter the postseason only missing the services of Cam Reddish.

If De’Andre Hunter has no minutes restrictions, he would be a prime candidate to counter Julius Randle for long stretches. Ultimately, however, McMillan is a big believer in positional defending and not cross-matching, meaning the Hawks will need to win their one-on-one matchups against similarly sized opponents.

Gaining one more strong wing defender, in addition to spot defenders like Tony Snell and Solomon Hill means the team should be able to prevent penetration of opposing slashers — ala an R.J. Barrett or a Derrick Rose — a top worry during the season.

Like previous McMillan-led teams, the Hawks have sported a bottom-10 pace that is intent on slowing down halfcourt possessions on defense and calming running offensive sets on the other side. We’ve seen the Hawks patiently run off ball screen actions for Huerter, Hunter and Bogdanovic in recent games that take some time to set up but can wear a defense down. If all else fails, the Hawks can use the firepower of Trae Young’s creative abilities and Danilo Gallinari’s late clock cheat code of rising over smaller defenders to keep Atlanta in any game.

In the end, there is no real evidence McMillan teams have significantly underperformed once taking account of health and regular season success. The parallels between previous regimes only go so far, as McMillan has never taken over a playoff team in midseason and the game of basketball has moved toward spacing and taking a higher percentages of shots from three over the years.

Atlanta’s head coach has adapted his system to fit the team of which he took the reins, and given his fantastic record since that date — a record of 27-11 since March 1 — he should be given the benefit of the doubt to field a competitive side in the postseason that can make a serious run.