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Friday, March 12, 2010
McMillan bandages Blazers together

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

I don't know about you, but when Tom Hanks announced "The Hurt Locker" won for best picture at the Oscars earlier this week, I was halfway expecting Nate McMillan to take the stage. While the Portland Trail Blazers coach is not the Hollywood type, the show his team is putting on -- despite 14 starting lineups because of injuries -- is pretty impressive. That's why, when the NBA hands out its Oscars at the end of the season, McMillan should win coach of the year.

Greg Oden
Maybe some skeptics predicted Greg Oden wouldn't last the season, but nobody last fall forecasted the Blazers' roster decimation.

Coming off a 54-win season in 2008-09, the expectations for the Blazers were high this season. Oft-injured center Greg Oden was healthy, All-Star guard Brandon Roy was only getting better and the team shored up its backcourt by adding veteran point guard Andre Miller. I actually thought the team had a legitimate shot to overtake the Denver Nuggets in the Northwest Division. But then the wheels popped off. The season that started with key players Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez on the inactive list spiraled further down with Travis Outlaw's broken foot. Then season-ending knee injuries claimed Oden -- again -- and Joel Przybilla. Roy got hurt and missed some games. LaMarcus Aldridge was hurt. Portland's locker room has been hurt so bad that Przybilla reinjured his knee climbing out of the shower, and McMillan ruptured his Achilles tendon and needed a boot to walk the sideline.

Hardly anyone would have faulted the team for not winning. Instead, Portland has the fifth best defense in the league, which it illustrated by holding Golden State and its No. 3 offense to nine fourth-quarter points in a 110-105 win Thursday. That road victory also highlighted another one of the team's strengths, as the Blazers are only one of five teams in the Western Conference with a winning record away from home.

Give up? Please. The Blazers are eighth in the standings and still can win 50 games this season.

"Nate has done a great job of keeping this team together when we had all the reasons in the world to fold the tent," Roy said. "Despite having more injuries than probably any other team, he's managed to stay focused and overcome all of that and keep us right in the thick of the playoff race."

Kevin Pritchard, the team's GM, says McMillan is like a circus performer.

"He's an incredible juggler," he joked. "Guys fall out, new guys come in and he just keeps making adjustments based on who's available, which seems to change every other day."

There is an old African proverb I turn to when facing adversity: Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. I believe that proverb's sentiment should be used when measuring a coach's worth. When a coach has talented players and most of his key guys are healthy, he should be able to win. But what happens when the talent is not as good or the players are not as healthy? What happens when the seas get choppy?

"You adapt," McMillan said. "You just learn to adapt. I never thought, 'Maybe this isn't our year.' I just thought, 'I have to change.' The defensive scheme I was hoping to use with Oden and Przybilla is not the one I'm using now. Our offense has changed multiple times during the season. At the start of the year, I was hoping Outlaw would be able to carry the offense for our second unit in stretches and things like that, but things happen."

And then you have to coach.

"So you meet with players individually, and you talk about changing roles and what you need from them to be successful. The biggest danger is having guys tune you out. There's a balance between getting on players to motivate them and pulling back and letting them work through some rough patches. If you don't do it right, guys will tune you out and the season could be lost."

Joel Przybilla
The Blazers could be screaming in agony over the many injuries this season, but instead they're competing for a playoff spot.

It's that ability to balance, communicate and motivate that has elevated McMillan's performance over those of guys like Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Memphis' Lionel Hollins. Bad teams with young, healthy talent are expected to get better. Kevin Durant leading the Thunder to the playoffs in his third season is not that shocking. Zach Randolph has been dropping about 20 points and 10 rebounds per game every season since 2003-04. If he didn't have such a bad rep, he would have been an All-Star years ago. That's not to belittle what these coaches have done, but rather to put them in perspective. When you exceed low expectations -- and let's face it, no one expected much from the Thunder and Grizzlies at the beginning of the season -- it's easier to make a good impression. But when you consider one of the key hallmarks of a winning team is consistency and the fact that the only thing consistent about this season's Blazers has been the presence of McMillan, Pritchard and the rest of the coaching staff, well, then I take note.

Last season, the three teams with the most starting lineups were the Warriors, Kings and Wizards, and all of them had fewer wins than lineups. This season, the top three -- Warriors, Clippers and Timberwolves -- also have more lineups than wins. Portland's 14 lineups are ninth in the league, and yet the team is playing near .600 ball. This despite the fact that three of the five guys to start at center this season (including the recently acquired Marcus Camby) weren't even on the team last season.

"I just have the attitude that if you play the game the right way, if you play hard and smart and together, that you can beat anybody," McMillan said. "All of the teams in this league have talent, but for the most part, the ones that win are the ones who play hard every night. And that's all I try to do, keep our guys focused and playing hard without them tuning me out."

Which is why, despite the Blazers' surprising success, "playoffs" is still a four-letter word.

"We don't take anything for granted," McMillan said. "We could move up in the standings or we could fall out of the race all together. That's why we don't get ahead of ourselves. I tell the guys to win the game you're playing and we'll worry about the next game when we play it. "

One day at a time. Good advice. But he better jot down an acceptance speech just in case.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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