Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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BRIAN T. SMITH: Coach, player driven apart by similarities

The Columbian
Published:

TUALATIN, Ore. — First, there was the barrage.

Everything else that followed was damage control.

Trail Blazers guard Andre Miller and coach Nate McMillan finally went at it Thursday, drowning out the team’s practice and driving a stake through the middle of what has been already a season filled with misery.

The duo lifted their voices and stood their ground during a verbal confrontation at times so loud that it poured through a thick wooden door that separates the media room from the court, making waves that instantly perked the ears of notes-ready reporters.

What exactly was said? Who fired the first shot? Who got the last word? Who won? Who lost?

It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter, though, is that the relationship between McMillan and Miller hasn’t been right since training camp.

And even as the Blazers have stood strong and fought for high, dry ground during a downpour of injuries, health concerns and setbacks, McMillan and Miller have drifted farther and farther apart.

Now, McMillan and Miller appear to be standing on two separate shores while the waves pound and the rain hails down.

And it’s a shame.

Because it should never have gotten to this point.

McMillan and Miller are both proud, strong-minded individuals. Both rose from little to accomplish remarkable things. Both hide a sensitive, caring heart with bold, righteous words

And the coach and player have one more incredibly important trait in common: Each has held down the role of a big-time NBA starting point guard.

So how can they now be so far apart?

Because the same traits that define their best components — pride, inner strength, will — are the ones that have clashed all season.

McMillan began the 2009-10 campaign with a vision. Blazers 2.0, he called it.

In McMillan’s eyes, Rip City Redux would be led by two units; two rotating, interchangeable sections that, together, would create a team greater than the sum of its individual parts. A squad filled with mismatches, advantages and dynamic talent that ideally could do more than just compete against top-tier squads such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics.

And one of the main pieces of McMillan’s vision hinged on Miller serving as the team’s back-up point guard, in turn playing behind starter Steve Blake.

But injuries wrecked McMillan’s ideal.

Goodbye, Greg Oden. Goodbye, Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum and a long list of others limping and hobbling around like a three-legged dog.

To his credit, though, McMillan has shown the ability to adjust on the fly.

He has promoted rookies such as Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham. Put faith in veteran Juwan Howard. And he has displayed the unshakable recognition that the future success of all things black and red ultimately rests in the trusted hands of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.

But there is one area where McMillan has missed the mark this season: Miller.

Yes, Miller has been given his much-desired starting role. But when it comes to the confusion and frustration that have surrounded his presence ever since he became a Blazer, the 11-year veteran still sounded as unsure as a lost child during an interview last Sunday.

“I just don’t think I’ve been given the opportunity as a veteran to actually show what I can do to help this team; there never was a chance coming in here to put my stamp on the team as a veteran leader,” Miller told The Columbian. “If you look at it, if you’re not given the opportunity, you’ve got to find it; you’ve got to find ways to adjust.”

Miller adjusted Thursday. And after pawing and clawing at his box since training camp, Miller finally broke out.

“What the (heck) did I do?” Miller yelled out.

What Miller did — and has done all season — is be himself.

He’s mixed oohs and ahs with silence and murmurs. He’s played the game, while balancing the best of intentions with missteps and contradictions.

Meanwhile, McMillan has kept Miller at distance. And the coach who called Thursday’s outburst a “team conversation” has also professed to being unable to reach his new point guard.

“He’s a very, very quiet individual. And he is to himself,” McMillan said last month when discussing Miller. “It’s almost like — sometimes silence is worse than someone who talks. Because you can’t, you don’t have a read. Or you don’t know how to … communicate with them.”

Thursday, the broken communication between McMillan and Miller was loud enough for the whole world to hear. And as the coach and player drifted farther apart, it was clear that the only thing uniting them was their division.

Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or brian.smith@columbian.com. Read his Blazers Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter

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