McMillan discusses his exit with Blazers

TUALATIN — By now, Nate McMillan is over the shock. He's past the tears. And he is done dissecting where it all went wrong this season with the Trail Blazers.

It was Tuesday night, five days since he had been fired as coach of the Trail Blazers, and while that word "fired" still stings and still leaves him with feelings of uncertainty about his future, the man who reshaped a franchise refused to take shots on his way out.

He has his theories on why a team that started so hot — 7-2 and atop the Western Conference — faltered so spectacularly in his final days. And he has some regrets, both with how the roster was assembled and how he handled some of those players. But he was steadfast in taking the high road.

The ship ran aground and he was the captain. As a result, he will take the blame.

"I mean, we were playing some bad basketball. Something was going to happen, you just knew it," McMillan said Tuesday in his first interview since his firing. "To sit here and think that I wasn't going to be looked at ... I wasn't sitting here thinking I was untouchable. They made a tough decision, but they made it, and I respect that."

Publicly, he will say the NBA lockout was the biggest factor in the demise of his team. If ever there were a time he needed the normal September getting-acquainted period and an October training camp, it was this season, when the Blazers were introducing a new point guard and a reshaped roster that featured five new players. Instead, there was a hastily assembled training camp in December, which on Day 1 began in ominous fashion with a trifecta of bad news: the retirement of Brandon Roy, another medical setback for Greg Oden and a heart ailment for LaMarcus Aldridge.

McMillan was already coming into the season with heightened anxiety. Entering his seventh season in Portland, and coming off three consecutive one-and-done playoff appearances, he said he felt he needed to get out of the first round to keep his job.

"If there was a year I needed the preseason, it was this year," McMillan said. "But I get it. Regardless of what you have done in the past, in pro sports you've got to win."

No matter what the obstacles had been, be it an ever-revolving management team or major injuries, McMillan had always found a way to win in Portland. So it was vexing to him why he wasn't able to get the results from a team that had a mix of rising stars, seasoned veterans and players trying to earn new contracts.

On Tuesday, he was still unwilling to acknowledge the widely accepted belief that his players had tuned him out and, worse yet, had stopped playing for him.

"As a group, we just hadn't connected on the floor with each other, and that was the big thing," McMillan said.

It was a problem he could never solve this season. But it wasn't for lack of trying. As the season wore on, and the losses and margin of losses mounted, McMillan said he was increasingly unable to sleep.

It was after one of those sleepless nights when his phone rang last week. It was team president Larry Miller. His final moments as Trail Blazers coach had arrived.

Miller started with small talk, but quickly got to the point. He said the Blazers were going in a different direction, and it was going to start with replacing McMillan.

The phone line went silent.

"I was kind of numb," McMillan said. "I could tell that Larry, it was tough for him. I told him to let me call him back, because I couldn't talk."

The following hours remain hazy, but McMillan says he remembers "just sitting there" in his room. He remembers asking himself whether it was real.

Then people started to call offering their support. Then he saw it across the ticker on TV.

"When everybody else started to find out, I knew then it was for real, that this really happened, you are no longer a Blazer. You are no longer the head coach of the Blazers," McMillan said.

He eventually called his wife, Michelle, who called their son and daughter, who immediately called their father.

A couple of hours after being informed, the reality had sunk in. And so came the emotions. He cried.

He thought about the challenges he encountered in Portland. He had been the face of the Blazers' rival, Seattle, where he was called Mr. Sonic, and he remembers the determination he applied to earning the trust and respect of the Blazers following. He remembered his mother, who died in January of his first season. He remembered his good friend and first coaching hire — Maurice Lucas — who died last season.

"I thought seven years went fast," McMillan said.

Exactly when, or where, it all went wrong nobody knows. But it happened quickly.

On Feb. 20, in Los Angeles, the Blazers suffered a humiliating loss to the Lakers, falling behind 37-7 in a game that owner Paul Allen attended.

After the game, Allen spent a lengthy time inside the locker room. He listened to McMillan's address to the team, after which McMillan asked the owner to talk.

"He wasn't happy with that play, and I totally understand that. Totally," McMillan said.

Afterward, Allen had a private conversation with McMillan.

"His words to me: 'Do what you need to do.' Meaning, this needs to change. Whatever I felt needed to be done, I had his support."

The next day, McMillan changed his starting lineup, benching point guard Raymond Felton and starting Jamal Crawford.

Previously, Miller had offered a public vote of McMillan. But by the time the team convened after the All-Star break, there was more lackluster play. No matter how hard he tried, McMillan couldn't get the team to play. More and more discussions between McMillan, Miller and acting general manager Chad Buchanan started taking place about the direction of the team.

"They have supported me, even until the end. Even when they had created the end, there was support," McMillan said. "It was just time to go a different direction. But the support from Mr. Allen, from Larry, has always been there."

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