The perpetual scowl that now pinches Nate McMillan's face as he paces the sideline is perhaps the best indication that the Sonics' new coach has entered the excruciating second phase of his fast-forward NBA apprenticeship. He's fully immersed now, neck-deep in a swamp of intellectual agony, mulling tough decisions that bring iffy or slow-smoldering results.This is not to say that the honeymoon's over, because McMillan never got a honeymoon. It's more in keeping with the circumstances of his hiring to say that he inherited a truly disastrous situation that might have been less disastrous had he inherited it sooner. McMillan, after all, was already married to the organization. The lead job should have been his all along, from the moment George Karl was told to pack his bags. Replacing Karl with that maladapted honky extraordinaire Paul Westphal was Band-Aid policy at best. At worst, it was an insult to McMillan.

So the explosive play evinced by the Sonics subsequent to McMillan's elevation to head coach had more to do with relief than romance. And of all the lessons learned over the course of the last two weeks--with the Sonics dropping four straight and then clawing their way desperately back above .500--the most important is that relief is a short-lived goad to inspiration. With the dust of early-season disruptions all but settled, the Sonics' road out from the darkness of mediocrity to light has become, once again, as long and hard as it ever was--and McMillan's face shows it.

Consistency, in basketball, is not the last refuge of the unimaginative; it's the primary prerequisite of success. The regular season is an endless struggle against inconsistency--against myopia, random burn-out, and team disintegration. For a coach, it's also a constant battle against frustration. The game moves lickety-split, but plans and adjustments and new rotations aren't always so quick to take hold. It's as much a chess match as it is a point-race against the clock; and McMillan's intense frown is a signal that he's evolving into a long-term strategist as well as a dyspeptic malcontent. It's a good combination. McMillan is starting to get the furrowed, jowly, hang-dog mien of a Rudy Tomjanovich and a Jeff Van Gundy. This, then, is phase two. The war, as opposed to the battle.

McMillan faced his toughest strategic challenge thus far after Gary Payton sustained an injury on December 30 against Charlotte. For the next four games--with Payton hobbling stubbornly but ineffectively up and down the court, stiffing jump shots and lagging on defense--the whole team foundered. With Payton gimped, both the offense and the defense collapsed in a flat-footed dance of desultory lassitude. McMillan flailed, hardly immune to the confusion. At times, he seemed barely able to contain his frustration. His rotations got funky; they seemed to take on a slightly punitive aspect, as struggling lineups were left in for over-long stretches and hot hands sat languishing on the bench. When persnickety comments and veiled accusations started blistering up on the sports pages, the feeling was just all too familiar: Jesus Christ, here we go again. Implosion.

Then McMillan executed the perfect move: He bumped Ruben Patterson into the starting slot previously held by forward Jelani McCoy (a guy who puts far more energy into making faces than making himself useful). This, more than anything else, proved decisive in yanking the Sonics out of their slump. Couple this with McMillan's willingness to cut back on Patrick Ewing's playing time, and you can see how he's beginning to double-focus: one eye on the immediate situation at hand, and one eye on far horizons. Scowling all the while.

rick@thestranger.com