McMillans summer break that wasnt
Blazer coach comes off busy three-month stint coaching USA team
If it were a feature film, Nate McMillan would call it 'The Longest Summer.'
But the Trail Blazer coach isn't complaining.
'It was a long summer, but a productive summer,' says McMillan, who served a six-week stint (July 17 through Sept. 3) as an assistant coach on the U.S. national team that placed third in the world championships at Japan.
Throw in all the preparation for the NBA draft and Las Vegas Summer League in June and early July, and no one could blame McMillan for wanting to take a week or two off after he flew to his Seattle home from the Orient on Sept. 4.
'I thought I might feel that way, too,' says McMillan, who is preparing for his second season as Portland's coach and the team's Oct. 3 opening of training camp. 'But after a day or two, I was back in Portland. A lot of our players were already in town, and I wanted to see everybody. I went back (to Seattle) the following weekend, but I've pretty much been here since then.'
McMillan's patriotic side caused him to volunteer for duty with Team USA. He doesn't regret the time served.
'When you have that (United States) across your chest, representing your country - it doesn't get any bigger than that,' McMillan says. 'To have an opportunity to be a part of that, to experience what so many greats have gone through, to work with the coaches and players I worked with - each day you look forward to it.
'Every day, I was excited to see what would happen next … 'where do we go from here?' It made the trip somewhat quicker, but we were gone a long time.'
McMillan, Phoenix head coach Mike D'Antoni and Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim were assistants on a staff headed by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K is a strong presence, even on a staff blessed with pro aides.
'It was a good experience because he has had so much success,' says McMillan, 42. 'Even though I'm an NBA coach, I was the young buck on the staff. The other guys are in their 50s and 60s. You sit back and kind of listen. You find a way to fit into a role. A lot of it was more listening than giving instructions. What I tried to do was go with what he was doing and teach that.'
During idle time, the Blazers were on McMillan's mind. He wound up doodling on a notepad like a daydreaming artist.
'There's nothing you can do, sitting over there across the water,' he says. 'I had a lot of time to think about my team, the players, what we had done over the summer, what I want to do this season. I wrote down different lineups, different combinations, played around with plays, schemes, ideas as far as what I want to do in training camp.'
With such talent as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, anything less than a championship at Japan had to be considered a failure.
'We didn't accomplish what we wanted,' McMillan says. 'We fully expected to come back with the gold.'
McMillan says the single-elimination format was new to the U.S. players, who are used to best-of-seven playoff series. And the physical style of play worked against them.
'The touching, the holding, the grabbing, the illegal screens … we've taken all of that out of our league,' he says. '(The NBA) game is more of a finesse game. Our rules are based more for teams to score than to defend. The games (in Japan) wound up being played in the 70s and 80s.'
The 91-85 semifinal loss to Greece was borne from a U.S. inability to defend the pick-and-roll.
'We used all-out defensive pressure, and the philosophy was for our point guard to take their point guard out,' McMillan says. 'Greece took (its) point guard off the ball, and all of a sudden we had (shooting guards and forwards) defending their 1. We weren't ready for that. By the time we had it figured out, (Greece) had the momentum and the game was over.'
McMillan enjoyed the experience of working with some of the NBA's elite players. In helping the U.S. to an 8-1 record, Anthony averaged a team-high 19.9 points. Wade averaged 19.3 points, and James scored at a 13.9-point clip and led in rebounds with 4.8.
'I could use all of them - every player we had,' he says. 'They were all what I expected them to be. Carmelo came in on a mission. He played as if he was playing for the Denver Nuggets. Early in the tournament, he was on fire. In the bronze medal game, LeBron played the point and was outstanding (in a 96-81 win over) Argentina. Dwyane was coming off the bench scoring 24, 25 points in 17 to 20 minutes. Nobody gives Shane Battier a lot of credit, but he was the key to some of our wins because of his defense.'
All the coaches and players have made a three-year commitment to the U.S. team through the 2008 Olympic Games. Next year, the Americans must finish among the top two in an Olympic qualifying event in Venezuela to make it to Beijing in 2008. McMillan believes the experience in Japan will be a beneficial one to the U.S. team in its quest for gold in '08.
'Coach K now feels he has to adopt a system that will fit the NBA players and the international style of play,' McMillan says. 'He has to make some changes. He went with his philosophy, and that philosophy was good, but we have to have a backup plan. In the NBA, we're always making adjustments. You can't guard Luke Ridnour the same way you guard Tony Parker or Steve Nash. You can't guard Ray Allen the same way you guard Kobe Bryant or Manu Ginobili. We're always tweaking and making adjustments. We'll do that (with the U.S. team), too.'
Bryant, out this summer because of knee surgery, will join Team USA next year. So, too, will Detroit guard Chauncey Billups, who was married this summer. 'If those two guys are healthy, they will certainly be on the team,' McMillan says. … The final two players cut from the U.S. team this summer were guards Gilbert Arenas and Bruce Bowen. Arenas took exception to being let go and says he will get revenge against McMillan and D'Antoni.
'I'm going to be the silent assassin this year,' Arenas told The Washington Post. 'I can't wait to play the Suns and Portland. Against Portland, Nate McMillan, I'm going to try to score 100 points in two games. Against D'Antoni, I'm going to try to score 100 in two games.'
Says McMillan: 'I don't know why - as if we had something to do with him being released. Was I part of the committee? Mike and I laughed at it. It's funny that he singled us out. I guess (Arenas) couldn't get to Coach K so he went at the pro coaches.'
McMillan was happy that Blazer rookie Sergio Rodriguez earned a gold medal with Spain as a backup point guard. Rodriguez had a big game in Spain's 75-74 victory over Argentina in the semifinals, going for 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, making 3 of 3 shots from 3-point range, in 15 minutes.
'Sergio was playing behind some very good guards with a lot of experience,' McMillan says. 'He was a little down because he wasn't getting a lot of minutes. I told him, 'Shut your mouth, play, take advantage of your opportunities.' '
McMillan says he wasn't able to be a tourist during his two weeks in Japan. 'We had time to get out, but not to see sights,' he says. 'My wife was disappointed I didn't bring home pictures.'