NBA conference finals nod latest feather in Dunlap coaching cap

June 23, 2021

Mike Dunlap

In the twilight of his 40-year hoops coaching career, Mike Dunlap of Fairbanks takes nothing for granted.

He savors every moment and soaks up memories like a sponge, especially when it comes to winning a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs.

The 64-year-old assistant coach celebrated like a rock star after his Milwaukee Bucks held on for a 115-111 overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets to earn a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

“A shot of tequila and a beer right there in the locker room,” he said. “You celebrate. Then management comes in and people are dropping their guard because the pressure is Mach 3, so any chance you get those tiny windows you take advantage of it.

“When you’ve been in it a long time you know there’s always work to be done, but it’s a matter of picking your spots where you do celebrate. So you get really good at celebrating in short increments, even if they are hourly; but you don’t leave that behind because you never know if you’ll ever get here again.”

This will be Dunlap’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s a crowning achievement in a career that has spanned four decades and seen him become the first NBA coach from Alaska.

He spent two seasons with the Denver Nuggets from 2006 to 2008. Then he became head coach of the Charlotte Hornets for the 2012-13 season. Now he’s an assistant in his first season with Milwaukee.

The Bucks brought him in to focus on offensive rebounding and zone defense. Dunlap is famous for his instruction and defensive strategy, especially when it comes to zone defense. He’s even made a few DVDs on the subject.

Getting back to the NBA was a big deal for him and he’s grateful Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer took a chance on hiring “this old guy” from Alaska.

“I’ve always been able to communicate and articulate a vision to the people who hired me. ‘Hey, this guy is pretty confident, let’s give him a chance.’ And it’s the same thing with the Bucks,” Dunlap said. “It wasn’t because I knew more than anybody. It wasn’t because I had a certain system. It was my ability to listen and find something in common with the person I was communicating with to build trust and get my point across, and maybe motivate them in a different way than they had been touched before.”

The Bucks will face the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Game 1 tonight in the best-of-7 series.

This is not Dunlap’s first dance in the NBA playoffs. He twice helped the George Karl-coached Denver Nuggets reach the postseason in 2007 and 2008, losing in the first round both times.

He’s also got professional playoff coaching experience when he was a head coach for three years in Australia, where he guided the Adelaide 36ers to the finals in 1994, and semifinals in 1995 and 1996.

Playoff basketball is incredibly intense, he said, both physically and mentally. There isn’t as much time and space to shoot the ball, which is why you see a dramatic decline in scoring.

“It’s gnarly,” Dunlap said. “Mentally, you find out who your gritty guys are … and that’s why a guy like P.J. Tucker is so important because he’s a beer can guarding a tall Martini glass when it comes to him and Kevin Durant.”

Durant had an epic Game 7 performance with 48 points, including a long jumper that tied the game at 109-109 with 1.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter to force overtime.

But Durant went scoreless in OT and missed another long jumper late that would have tied the game.

“You’re trying to wear a legend down,” Dunlap said of Durant. “Fortunately, that last shot, I would give P.J. full credit for the fact KD in the overtime just didn’t have enough legs to get that ball to the rim. He did everything he could, but when you look at it, it was the wear down, so you go back you really find out who the gritty guys are that can handle the variables of being on the road, because Brooklyn is as tough a place to win as anywhere because you got all those New Yorkers.

“It was a helluva win.”

Dunlap, of Lathrop High fame, has done a lot of winning in his career as a player and coach. Don’t forget he was the first Alaskan to play in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1980 with Loyola Marymount.

He got into coaching right away and over his career built a reputation as an architect for rebuilding teams.

He twice made a quantum leap that properly illustrated his awesome adaptability – first going from NCAA Div. II Metro State to NBA assistant with Denver in 2006, and then going from St. John’s assistant to NBA head coach with Charlotte.

“That’s unheard of,” he said.

Dunlap has accomplished everything on the bench from assisting NCAA Power 5 teams and leading Metro State and Cal Lutheran to No. 1 national rankings, to helping the Nuggets reach the 50-win benchmark and supporting Milwaukee’s second appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 21 years.

Looking back, it’s been quite the ride for Dunlap.

“I was able to go from one environment to another environment and become a part of it, a meaningful part of it,” he said. “I’m someone who can develop an organization and players and a team to go from bad to good to great.

“Sometimes I failed, sometimes I succeeded. But that’s the legacy.”