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Originally published Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

McMillan changes Blazers' tune

Slowly, this young team was slipping away from its coach. All of Nate McMillan's screaming, the three-hour practices, the yo-yoing of players...

Seattle Times staff columnist

PORTLAND — Slowly, this young team was slipping away from its coach. All of Nate McMillan's screaming, the three-hour practices, the yo-yoing of players in and out of the lineup were wearing on the Portland Trail Blazers.

The players already had nicknamed him "Sarge" and "Major Pain," and McMillan was living up to his billing.

Early this season, the Blazers had lost nine of 10 games, and in Portland, it was starting to feel like the same old, same old.

"It was like he was still yelling at us, but it was going in one ear and out the other," said Brandon Roy, Portland's early-season MVP candidate and sure-thing All-Star. "I mean, it wasn't like the guys didn't want to listen. It was just that guys were full of stuff, and I think he felt like he wasn't getting through to us anymore."

During one of his many sleepless November nights, McMillan told himself he had to change. He had to lighten up on his players, become more of an educator than a drill sergeant.

"He's still a tough guy. That's just Coach Nate," Roy said Tuesday after Portland's 89-79 win over the Sonics. "But he's definitely let up. I think there came a time in practice when he realized he was on us too tough. I mean everything was like, 'No, no, no,' and he was pulling guys off the floor.

"There was just this one practice where it was a bad day for the whole team, even him, and he came back after that and told us, 'I'm going to start trying to lay off you guys a little more.' He told us, 'I want you guys to come talk to me.' "

Make no mistake, McMillan didn't all of a sudden become "The Big Easy." He still barks, still demands everything from every player, every day. He scrimmaged, for instance, on Christmas Eve.

But after the Blazers dropped to 5-12 following a 100-79 loss at San Antonio, McMillan changed his tone and his tune.

For his players to change, McMillan had to change at least slightly.

The former Sonics player and coach reminded himself that even though this was his third season in Portland, the rebuilding project was just beginning. His team still was the youngest in the NBA and the third-youngest in the history of the league.

"There had been a lot of hard practices, a lot of screaming. I want to win and I felt I needed to win," McMillan said. "But I had to look at what I had and realize the organization wasn't putting pressure on me. I was putting pressure on myself. I had to do a lot of soul searching and realize the situation we were in.

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"I was being really hard on our guys, but I had to realize these are the youngest players in the league and we have to be patient and work with these guys and develop them and help them to grow. We've been doing a lot more teaching, a lot more video, a lot more one-on-one work. And I just kind of took a step back and allowed them to play."

The change has been dramatic.

Under the slightly new Nate, the Blazers have won a league-best 11 games in a row. Five of those wins came without starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and, all of them have come without the league's No. 1 draft pick, Greg Oden, who is out for the season recovering from microfracture knee surgery.

McMillan tinkered slightly with the lineup, and at the end of games he makes certain the ball always is in the sure hands of former Washington Husky Roy.

And now the Trail Blazers are back.

"It was a process," said Roy, who has averaged 22.8 points and 6.5 assists in the streak. "It was hard for him [McMillan] to loosen up. But it [the change] definitely shows in the way we play now, because we play a lot more free and we look like we're having fun."

This team that not so long ago was the embarrassment of basketball, leading the league in arrests and overall bad behavior, is a model for the 21st century.

They are the Jail Blazers no more.

These are good guys playing very good basketball. They didn't play their best Tuesday, but still played together. Portland had 27 assists and just six turnovers.

"The main thing we talked about since I got here was playing together," McMillan said. "Staying connected. Being a fist out there on the floor. And during this stretch you've seen this team pull together and play together. They don't quit, and they're starting to learn how to win games."

After averaging just 27 wins the past three seasons, these Blazers already have won 16 this season. They are a half-game behind first-place Denver in the Northwest Division.

"Winning helps everything. I think things would be different if we'd lost 11 in a row," Roy said. "But since we have won 11 in a row, I think Coach Nate's been a lot calmer. I know, I've noticed it on the court.

"Before, you could see guys turn the ball over and it would be like, 'Oh, oh, Coach is gonna chew me out.' Now he kind of lets us make up for our mistakes, and it's helped guys."

This city is in love with this team, with these players, with basketball.

Three years after McMillan came from Seattle and promised to change the culture, a nicer Nate is making Portland Rip City again.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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