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McMillan's Conservative Rotation Costs Atlanta a Potential Stranglehold on Knicks

Atlanta had a third-quarter lead that was blown in a matter of minutes after Nate McMillan stuck with his bench unit for too long.

Ask just about anyone in NBA circles, and they’ll tell you the same thing: In playoff series, the road team will come away feeling it's done its job if it can take one of those first two games in enemy territory.

The Hawks will likely take solace in that as well, as they head home to Atlanta with a 1-1 split in their first-round series with the Knicks. Still, after winning Game 1, and having clear control of Game 2 midway through the third quarter, there should be a sour taste left in the young club’s mouth.

Simply put, Hawks coach Nate McMillan stayed with his all-bench lineup far too long in the third quarter, a stretch in which the Knicks stole the momentum by outscoring Atlanta, 32-18.

Even as New York found its offense shortly after halftime, the Hawks looked to be in good shape with 3:49 to go in the third period. Trae Young had just knocked home another floater to give Atlanta a 72-66 advantage in front of a raucous, but nervous Madison Square Garden crowd.

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But then things shifted.

There was a Kevin Huerter miss. Then a Bogdan Bogdanovic miss. Young missed his next floater. McMillan went to his bench, taking out his top scorers for a breather. But the reserves began clanking away in succession: Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell, Lou Williams all failed to put shots down.

Seven minutes and 38 seconds later, the Hawks had missed 12 of their last 13 shots; the vast majority of them with Young and Bogdanovic on the sideline. The Knicks raced ahead by 10 points, 88-78, during the first three and a half minutes of the final quarter.

At that point, McMillan called timeout to bring Young, Collins and Bogdanovic back into the game. The results were immediate. Out of the timeout, Huerter hit a ridiculous 34-footer to break the drought, beginning a stretch that saw Atlanta score on six of its next seven possessions to tie the score at 91.

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The comeback ultimately wasn’t enough, as the Hawks stagnated again, logging just one point in the final five minutes of play to lose, 101-92. But the late-game comeback might not have been necessary had McMillan gone back to his starters a bit sooner. (Or maybe if he’d plugged Bogdanovic back in while waiting a bit longer to bring Young off the bench.)

“I was fine with my rotation,” he said after the game when asked about the dry spell and whether he considered bringing Young and others back sooner.

It’s early in the series still, but the remainder of this matchup will be fascinating. On one side, you have a team that’s overachieved all year and is trying to squeeze everything it can out of certain players. (Once injury-prone guard Derrick Rose—who’s gone from sixth man to now starting the second half and playing 39 minutes—is the latest example.) On the other, you have McMillan, a solid coach who’s been critiqued for tactical choices in prior playoff runs. In his career, he’s 17–37 in postseason. He went 3–16 in Indiana.

One scenario from the 2018 postseason stands out still. McMillan’s Pacers had surprised LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Game 1, and were seeking to take a 2-0 lead. The coach’s best player, Victor Oladipo, picked up a second foul just 62 seconds into the contest, prompting McMillan to bench him early.

He put Oladipo back on the bench nearly the final five minutes of the half after the swingman earned a third foul. But despite the unintended rest Oladipo had in the first half, McMillan kept his star on a normal substitution pattern in the second half—even though finished the game with just those three fouls.

The Pacers were fantastic with Oladipo on the floor, outscoring the Cavs by 11 in his 28 minutes that night. But without his ability to create offense (he had 22 points in those 28 minutes), Cleveland won by 14 during Oladipo’s time on the bench.

Indiana went on to lose the game by three, 100-97, with their best player likely having been capable of logging more minutes. The Cavs tied the series that night, then went on to beat the Pacers in seven games.

McMillan has developed a reputation of lifting teams in the regular season, and deservedly so. The Hawks, who turned their season around after McMillan became the coach around the All-Star break, finished the campaign as arguably the hottest team in basketball.

They can only hope McMillan doesn’t resort to overly conservative maneuvers when his team has a chance to be the aggressor.

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