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Nate McMillan gets a brief chance at head coaching again

McMillan explains his plans as he fills in for the Hawks head coach during his absence.

ATLANTA — Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce has handed over the keys, figuratively.

"Basically said, 'You got it now, Coach Mac. You guys know what we need to do,'" Hawks assistant coach Nate McMillan said.

Pierce flew back to Atlanta on Tuesday to be with his wife for the birth of their second child. He is expected to miss a couple of games, beginning on Wednesday, when the Hawks face the Boston Celtics.

While leaving was a no-brainer, it was still tough for Pierce to step away from the team while being in a difficult stretch. Atlanta has lost four consecutive games and has struggled mightily in fourth quarters.

"He got kind of emotional," McMillan said of his boss. "It was very difficult for him to get on the plane and leave his team in a situation we're in, where we've dropped a number of games, knowing there was no way he was going to miss the birth of his child.

"It just showed the commitment that he has towards this team. We have two families, and we spend just as much time with these players as we do with our own family," McMillan said.

McMillan said there are no major changes coming from him in these few games. In fact, he'll repeat what Pierce has preached: playing for a full 48 minutes, playing robust defense, and just getting better.

"Both coaches are pretty much on the same page. We have that 'we' mentality here," guard Skyler Mays said on Tuesday. "I don't think it's a huge drop off. It's just a new guy in the head seat."

That new guy has more head coaching experience, however, coaching for the old Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers over the last two decades.

Those teams had young cores, like the Hawks, and that was something that gave McMillan the impulse to reach out to Pierce after the Pacers faced the Hawks last season to praise his "scrappy" team.

Coaching a young Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, McMillan knows the growing pains well.

"These young guys are seeing different things. Trae (Young) is seeing different defenses," he said. "He has to adapt to it. He has to show growth. But he has to go through that process."

By no means is McMillan attempting to replace Pierce. But it could be an audition for the future.

McMillan said he knows the role he was brought in to do: "Really assist all the coaches in all aspects of the game. Game preparation. Game management. So [Pierce] wants me thinking and reacting as a head coach on that sidelines to help him."

Now he gets to lead by example.

McMillan wouldn't discuss his future head coaching endeavors, his priority: "Hopefully win a few games."