With just 15 games remaining this season, I thought it was a perfect time to have an extended conversation with another key influence with the Indiana Pacers: Nate McMillan.
The Pacers’ associate head coach has a wealth of experience and knowledge in the NBA. He’s been in the league as a player (1986-1998) or a coach (2000-present) for all but three seasons since 1986. This summer, he joined Frank Vogel’s staff when Brian Shaw landed a head-coaching job with the Denver Nuggets. McMillan’s primary role with the team is to help Vogel in managing the team and assist in player development.
This is also McMillan’s first time on an NBA bench as an assistant coach after 12 seasons as a head coach. He has, however, served as an assistant with USA Basketball under Mike Krzyzewski.
The Pacers earned their 50th win of the season Monday night and the light at the end of the tunnel — the playoffs — is in sight. Before he cleaned up and drove to the airport to catch the team’s charter flight to New York, McMillan talked about the team's recent play.
What should be made out of their recent play? They’ve won four straight games, but it hasn’t been pretty.
“Well, they’re wins. I don’t know if they’re ugly wins. We know we got to get better and we got to improve. Teams are playing better and we’ve been able to find ways to win games. I think that’s the most important thing, being able to adapt to situations whether you play four games in five nights or you’re struggling. Last night (a win over Philadelphia), we didn’t shoot the ball well but we had open shots and the defense was pretty good and in the fourth quarter, the defense kind of carried us long enough for us to start making baskets and winning that game.
“We’re doing what we need to do to find ways to win ball games, and I think that’s the most important thing. We’re not dropping these games. We did drop four in a row a week ago but for the most part, the Detroit game, the Philly game, we didn’t drop those games.”
On that losing streak, what concerned you about that stretch? Was there any one thing?
“Kind of how we were losing those games and it started with Golden State, a team with speed and their ability to spread the floor and yet we were right in the game. We had the opportunity to win the game and then [Klay] Thompson makes a shot at the end. Then, we went down to Charlotte on a back-to-back and that’s going to be tough regardless of the way they’re playing this year. We knew that was going to be a tough game. And then it’s Houston. I think timing and teams playing well. … You drop four games in a week and you just have a week of bad basketball and that can happen.”
The defensive numbers have improved in the last few games. But on the other side of the ball, what’s been the hiccup?
“The thing is, we know we got to be better at both [ends]. Our defense has been the strength of this team for the last few years. Offensively, you don’t have one of the best records in the league if you can’t score. We know that we got to get better and each night out, you try to go out and do that. But we feel we’ve had some slippage at both ends of the floor.”
Turnovers have been an issue all season. What do you think is the primary cause?
“We have a lot of guys handling the ball and when you have a lot of guys handling the ball, sometimes that can lead to more turnovers. When we have Paul [George], and George [Hill], and Lance [Stephenson], and Evan [Turner]; there’s a number of guys that are handling the ball whereas I think a lot of times these low-turnover teams, there’s one guy handling the ball most of the times. There may be an opportunity where you’re going to have high turnovers.
“We want to be aggressive and I think sometimes we get maybe too aggressive in a sense, playing in traffic, throwing in traffic, trying to make the home-run play as opposed to keeping the game simple. Instead of making the A-B-C pass, we want to make the A-C-F pass. Keep the game simple. It’s a simple basketball game and I think we’re still young and we still like to (make the flashy play).”
Over the last month, the team has had to integrate three new pieces, dealt with injuries — (Andrew) Bynum in one night and Bynum out the other. Has that caused any difficulties or challenges?
“I don’t think so. Those guys are pros. Evan [Turner], Bynum and Lavoy [Allen] are pros and I think Frank [Vogel] had done a good job to get them involved and clear up their roles, as far as what we expect from them and those guys have adapted to who we are, and what they need to do in order to play here.”
What do you make of Roy Hibbert’s struggles in the last month (Hibbert is averagaing 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game since March 1)?
“The main thing is to get through the regular season. For us, we want to try and get home-court advantage, of course. We want our guys to be hitting on all cylinders when playoff time comes and Roy hasn’t had any time off. He’s played the whole season, and All-Star break. We think that has had an impact. We all know that we all have to get better and that’s the thing that we’re working on this last month of the season.”