Pacers Believe in New Roster in Rematch vs Cavs

April 13, 2018 - Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young, and Glenn Robinson III remember last year's first-round series with Cleveland and discuss why this year's team is better prepared for the playoffs.

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Pacers Believe in New Roster in Rematch vs Cavs

April 13, 2018 - Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young, and Glenn Robinson III remember last year's first-round series with Cleveland and discuss why this year's team is better prepared for the playoffs.
Apr 13, 2018  |  02:56

Pacers Still Out to Prove Doubters Wrong

April 12, 2018 - Heading into their first-round series with Cleveland, the Pacers find themselves in a familiar position as heavy underdogs. But that doesn't bother them.
Apr 12, 2018  |  02:04

Pacers On Facing LeBron James

April 12, 2018 - During their first media availability since the matchup with Cleveland became finalized, Pacers head coach Nate McMillan and players Victor Oladipo and Lance Stephenson talked about how they plan to go about matching up with LeBron James.
Apr 12, 2018  |  02:33

Turner Confident as Playoffs Begin

April 12, 2018 - Pacers center Myles Turner, teammate Victor Oladipo, and head coach Nate McMillan discuss Turner's slump at the end of the regular season and his mindset heading into the playoffs.
Apr 12, 2018  |  02:15

McMillan's Calm Hides a Churning Competitive Spirit

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

You see him standing on the sideline during games, arms folded across the chest, his face a blank slate.

Then you hear him postgame, win or lose, talking calmly about what just transpired, rarely revealing emotion beyond tempered disappointment or pleasure.

Dig beneath the superficial, however, talk with the players he coaches and the people who watch him up close and you get a vastly different impression. The Pacers didn't wildly exceed expectations and win 48 games during the regular season by fate, circumstance and magic wand. They were a coached team, one that played together, played with energy and lived without drama.

That's all a reflection of McMillan. He played 12 seasons in Seattle as a solid, steady, selfless, no-nonsense guard who prodded his teammates and kept them together. He plays much the same role in his 14th season as a head coach. To outsiders, McMillan veers past blasé all the way to boring. To insiders, he's a hardworking coach who balances discipline with humor, authority with open communication.

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Maybe his image would be different if McMillan had a more dramatic backstory. He's not his plucky predecessor, Frank Vogel, who scrapped his way from Division III guard to University of Kentucky walk-on to video assistant to NBA head coach. Nor was he a legendary player like the man who hired him to coach the Pacers, Larry Bird. He's Mr. One-Game-at-a-Time, who preaches about respecting the opponent and playing the game the right way. In other words, playing hard and playing together.

The Pacers have consistently done that as they enter their first-round playoff matchup with Cleveland, far surpassing what was anticipated from a team with eight first-year players on its playoff roster and re-igniting a fan base left downtrodden by last season's disappointing collection.

This team won just six more games than a year ago, and that one probably would have won at least six more games if Lance Stephenson had been acquired earlier in the season. But this season has been less of a slog for McMillan, who considers it one of his most enjoyable groups to direct.

"We've been coaching this year, and these guys come out and give you everything they have," he said. "There's not any egos. They work together. They seem to enjoy playing together."

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Note the choice of words: "we've been coaching this year." Intended or not, it leaves the impression McMillan feels as if he's been allowed to coach the way he wants with this group. And he made clear the way he wants to coach from his first meeting with the players after he was hired in 2016.

"That day he got hired, I remember him talking to everybody who was in that day," Glenn Robinson III said. "He said we were going to change the way we do things. He set a tone of success, put our heads right on winning.

"Everything amped up. Physically, mentally. His practices were a no-messing-around type of deal. Which we needed."

Not many people saw it, but McMillan tipped his hand before his first season as the Pacers' coach, when he met with area youth league and high school coaches at a clinic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He talked then of his own youth league experience as a nine-year-old kid in Raleigh, N.C., where he played on a city championship team directed by a coach who made a lasting impact.

"Nobody came close to beating us," McMillan said then. "He treated us like his kids. There was discipline, you showed up on time, you practiced hard, you played the right way. If you didn't, you didn't play.

"That's how I will continue to do things to this day. It's not going to be based on the star player. We're going to do things the right way, we're going to show up on time, we're going to work hard, we're going to play together. All of that is going to be expected of you. If not, we'll find someone to step in and play for you."

McMillan was nicknamed "Sarge" by Zach Randolph in Portland because of that no-messing-around approach. He banned headbands in games and cell phones from the locker room and made them double up in hotel rooms during training camp to form tighter relationships with one another. He's admittedly relaxed his approach since then, as he said he would do when Bird introduced him at the press conference in 2016, to avoid the fossilization process that snares those veteran coaches who refuse to adapt to changing environments.

"My approach is a little different than it was in 2005," he said recalling his first season as Portland's head coach after a five-year run in Seattle that ended with a 52-30 record. "Things have changed. The players have changed. How you coach these players has changed. The biggest thing is being able to adapt. There's a lot of old school in me. I won't lose all of that, but I understand you have to adapt to this generation of players as far as how you communicate with them, prepare them."

Which is what Bird was seeking.


Nate McMillan

"I like his demeanor," Bird said then. "I like the old school. I like players to be held accountable. I like structure. I like a lot of things Nate brings to the table."

McMillan was a disciplined NBA player, a calm leader, but also a demanding teammate and one who was capable of emotion - such as the time he threw the ball at Dennis Rodman. He's the same as a coach, which means he has demanding practices, a stricter adherence to being on time and offers sharper (private) critiques to his players.

"He's been on every single person in this gym at one point," Robinson said following Saturday's practice at St. Vincent Center.

In other words, that stoic sideline demeanor the fans see is a façade. McMillan is calm, yes, but not all of the time.

"Y'all see a calm demeanor," Thad Young said, laughing. "There's some timeouts you've got to pay attention to.

"He comes in and yells at us and gets us back (to basics) like a coach should do. He's not afraid to single one guy out, he's not afraid to point out certain things one guy's not doing. It's not to hurt him, it's to make us better. He's challenged us to come and get better and do our job to the best of our abilities and to remain focused and calm."

McMillan's mantra for his players is "calm, clear and connected." His patience and gentle offcourt demeanor bring calm, his honesty brings clarity and his lack of ego and willingness to listen develop a connection.

Donnie Walsh, the Pacers' longtime general manager who now works as a consultant in basketball operations and watches virtually every practice in Indianapolis, is most impressed with the clarity.


Nate McMillan

"Nate is very clear about what he wants to do," Walsh said. "Clear to the players where they fit into it. Clear to the players when they make a good play or when they make a bad play. But he's very firm about what he wants. He's not a screamer, but a firm, hard-nosed coach."

McMillan displayed his clarity in an uncomfortable conversation with Al Jefferson before training camp opened. Jefferson is a respected 14-year veteran who has averaged in double figures in 10 of his seasons. But McMillan told him upfront he would play behind Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis this season, out of the normal rotation unless an injury created an opening.

Jefferson did more than accept his role. He threw his support to McMillan, and has continued to do so during the season when players might question what they're being told.

"I remember telling Nate at the beginning of the season, I'm really excited for you because now you have a chance to do you," Jefferson said. "You have a chance to coach this team the way you want to do it. I've noticed it all year long. He's very honest; he's going to tell you the truth whether you like it or not."

Truth has a greater impact when it flows both ways. McMillan, according to those around him, listens to his players and coaches. He doesn't always agree with their opinions, but he's also willing to admit a mistake.

Dan Burke has been an assistant for Bird, Isiah Thomas, Rick Carlisle, Jim O'Brien and Vogel. He doesn't rank the head coaches he's worked for but has learned from some of McMillan's distinguishing characteristics.

"He's patient and he listens to everybody," Burke said. "He asks questions. He lets everyone have their say. He'll listen to video guys in our coaches' meetings. He's got this willingness to learn from everybody. That builds confidence in the whole staff. He doesn't always agree but we have a good dynamic with our group. We re-evaluate ourselves. How do we get better? How can we improve? Then we get on the same page and that's what we're selling."

Burkes' only doubt about his head coach is whether he's getting enough sleep. McMillan's calm exterior hides the same inner drive that keeps most coaches up nights and threatens them with ulcers. It's not visible during games or in postgame press conferences, but it's obvious to those who work with him.

"He doesn't say much, but he's living it every second," Burke said. "It's amazing how calm he is and how patient he is under this thickness of intensity."


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.