Here he comes now,the Sultan of Small Ball, the Maven of the Mismatch, the Pioneer of the PointForward, the hottest new old thing in coaching, a 66-year-old, white-haired manwith a cup of coffee in one hand, a stubbed-out stogie in the other, a bellythat spills over the lip of his khakis and only one nickname that will stick:Nellie. But what a nickname it is, one that can describe a style of play(Nellieball) or be inserted into a tired headline (whoa, nellie!) or, thesedays, be spit out like an epithet, at least around Dallas--particularly, oneimagines, in the lair of a certain hyperactive, media-savvy owner who just 25months ago was paying Nelson to coach his team.
Nellie. It's a namethat conjures images: of the consummate sixth man during his Boston Celticsdays; of the aquatic-themed neckwear he wore as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks;of the many runnin', gunnin' teams he coached that ran out of gas in theplayoffs. And while fish ties may not be back in vogue (though, really, werethey ever?), Nellieball is. On Sunday his Golden State Warriors, for 13 yearsthe hapless riders of the basketball apocalypse, stormed to a 3--1 lead overthe top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in a first-round series that has beenalternately mystifying and--for the long-suffering Bay Area fans now mainliningon Baron Davis half-court heaves and Andris Biedrins dunks--electrifying.
As the Warriors wongame after improbable game, members of the national media--carrying hastilyprinted MapQuest directions, for many had not been to Oakland since, well, thatSprewell business a decade ago--came to ask the same thing of Don Nelson: Howthe hell was he doing it? How had he taken a team that was so bad in Februaryand made it so good in April? How was eighth-seeded Golden State, which slippedinto the Western Conference playoffs on the final day of the regular season,dismantling the 67-win Mavs?
But first they haveto wait, for the guru always starts his morning with a cigar and a Starbuckslatte on the rooftop of the Warriors' practice facility alongside longtimeassistant Larry Riley. Then Nelson shuffles into the gym, trailed by theleague's smallest, hairiest entourage: Lucky, a Jack Russell mix, who's aconstant, wagging presence in the gym. And only when Nelson has settled on astool with Lucky at his feet is he ready to not answer the media's questions.For this is part of the Nellie mind-set: deny success and deflect credit. Tohim, his Warriors are "not very good" or simply "schmoes," ajump-shooting collection of hardwood Forrest Gumps lucking their way through aseries against a vastly superior foe.
No one, saveperhaps TNT provocateur Charles Barkley, is buying it anymore. The Warriors wonthe opener in Dallas 97--85 behind a 33-point, 14-rebound, eight-assistperformance from Davis; blasted Dallas 109--91 in Game 3 in Oakland; and onSunday rode the play of Davis again (33 points, eight rebounds, four assistsand one half-ending bank shot from midcourt) to a 103--99 victory at OracleArena before 20,672 fans, the largest (and, it seemed, loudest) crowd ever towatch a basketball game in California. These were not flukes. The Warriorsoutshot the Mavs in all three wins and outrebounded them in Game 3. Even ifDallas comes back to take the series, Golden State has exposed itsweaknesses--an over-reliance on forward Dirk Nowitzki, a lack of low-postproductivity at center--and crippled its confidence. One only had to see Mavscoach Avery Johnson sitting at the postgame podium and rubbing his headforlornly or glimpse owner Mark Cuban's histrionic scowl to know which team wasthe aggressor. Remember, Johnson was so wary of the Warriors--at week's end hewas 1--6 against Golden State this season and 67--12 against the rest of theleague--that he changed his lineup before Game 1, surely becoming the firstcoach to preemptively counter an upset that had yet to occur.
None of this meansthat the Warriors have suddenly become a great team; they finished 42--40 for areason. They are, however, peaking at the right time and with such remarkablechemistry that forward Stephen Jackson is right when he says that when theplayoffs start, "the regulars go out the window."
When "theregulars" began, last November, Nelson talked of transforming Golden Stateinto a bayside version of the Phoenix Suns, envisioning Mike Dunleavy as apoint forward and Troy Murphy as his three-point-shooting center. Only after aJan. 17 trade with the Indiana Pacers, in which Jackson and forward AlHarrington replaced Dunleavy and Murphy, did that vision become a reality. Eventhen, the Warriors didn't begin rolling until a March 4 defeat dropped them toseven games under .500 and prompted Nelson to declare the season lost. The nextnight, with Davis back from left knee surgery, Golden State won at Detroit,then went 16--5 the rest of the way.
In some ways theWarriors might even be better suited to play the Suns' style than the Sunsthemselves. In Davis, Jackson, Harrington, swingman Jason Richardson, guardMonta Ellis, reserve forward Matt Barnes and reserve swingman Micka√´l Pietrus,Nelson has seven unselfish players who can handle the ball, shoot, rebound andplay aggressive, trapping defense. (Biedrins, the lanky Latvian center knownfor sweeping dunks and clanking free throws, fills out the rotation.) The goalis to push, always push. At one point in Game 3, Golden State scored afterDavis tossed the ball ahead of the defense to Jackson for a layup--off a sideinbounds.
Defensively, theWarriors may be the only team in the league that can switch on everypick-and-roll. All the regulars are long or strong enough to muscle bigs andquick enough to stay with guards. The key, says Nelson: At 6'3" and 215pounds, Davis is the rare point guard stocky enough to stymie a four. He hasdone just that to the 7-foot Nowitzki when the two have squared off.
The Mavs areespecially vulnerable against a team like Golden State. Dallas centers DeSaganaDiop and Erick Dampier are usually effective at guarding big men and crashingthe offensive boards. But the Warriors provide no obvious matchup--the6'11" Biedrins is way too fast for the lumbering duo--creating multipleproblems. The Warriors can sag off either center to double Nowitzki (who has sofar looked flustered in the half-court, especially against the pesky Jackson)or stash a defender in the lane to dissuade penetration. At one point in Game4, Diop got the ball near the top of the key and his theoretical defender,Biedrins, was on the opposite block, at least 20 feet away, not even looking athim. The result: lineup roulette. Johnson has started three different quintetsin the first four games.
Compounding themismatch issue was the play of Davis, who through Sunday had averaged 25.8points on 55.2% shooting while making Papa Smurf beards all the rage in the BayArea. He has shot over smaller Mavs and driven past larger ones. Simply put, heis playing out of his mind. In one surreal 35-second, third-quarter-concludingsequence on Sunday, Davis hit a fadeaway three-pointer, blocked a jumper by6'6" Jerry Stackhouse, then stole an inbounds pass and raced the other wayto beat the clock with a two-handed dunk. "You can't stop him," saysJackson. "Only his knee or a bad shooting night can. Nobody can stay infront of him."
For a player whowas accused of giving up on one coach (Byron Scott of the New Orleans Hornets)and running another out of town (Mike Montgomery, Nelson's predecessor inOakland), it has been a remarkable display, and one Davis credits to hiscurrent mentor. "Throughout all the frustrations, all the injuries, the upsand downs with coaches, I never lost my love for basketball," says Davis."Having a coach like Nellie now, all the hard work and everything that I'vebeen through is starting to pay off."
When Davis firstcame back from surgery, Nelson says that he was "fairly conservative,"content to play Davis 32 to 36 minutes. "Now I have no limits," Nelsonsaid before Davis played 44 minutes in Game 4. "If he breaks down, hebreaks down, and we go home. What am I waiting for?"
Through it all,Nelson has been the steadying presence. When he arrived in Oakland last August,he announced that he was too old to worry about losing his job; he was going totell it like it is. And he has. When most NBA coaches call a timeout, theyfirst meet with their assistants briefly on the court, then address the team;Nelson just sits down and gives it to his players. At the start of the year hetold the team's starting center, Adonal Foyle, that he wouldn't play because hedidn't suit the system. (Foyle hasn't.) He told Davis he needed to get inshape. (Davis has.) And after the Game 4 win, he told the media that Ellis andHarrington were playing so poorly that he basically had a six-man rotation."He holds everybody accountable, but not in the same way," saysassistant coach Keith Smart. "He knows how much each guy can handle, andthat's unusual."
None of this islost on the players in Dallas, where, lest anyone forget, Nelson traded for andgroomed the two-time reigning MVP (Steve Nash), drafted and groomed thepresumptive MVP (Nowitzki), mentored last season's Coach of the Year (Johnson)and drafted the Mavs' other All-Star (Josh Howard). "You have to give him alot of credit--he knows this team," says Stackhouse. "He was aroundthis organization forever. I think he's been able to instill in his team thatthey have a good chance of beating us, and they believe him."
Nelson's job ismade easier because his Warriors are the quintessential nothing-to-lose,everything-to-prove team. Davis and Jackson are rehabbing reputations,Richardson is tasting the playoffs for the first time in his six-year careerand Nelson himself was considered washed up two years ago. Now? Davis ishearing M-V-P! chants, Jackson is lauded as a team leader, Richardson ishitting game-breaking threes, and Nelson is inspiring signs like the one Sundaythat read nellie smokes cuban. "This is as much fun as I've hadcoaching," says Nelson. "I've never enjoyed a year more than thisone."
Not since the RunTMC teams of the early '90s--coached by, of course, Nelson--have the Warriorsbeen at the forefront of Bay Area sports. Perhaps it's fitting, then, thatthere is such a nostalgic feel to this run. Chris Mullin (the C of TMC) is nowthe team's executive VP of basketball operations, Mitch Richmond (the M) is aspecial assistant and Rod Higgins is the G.M. Late Sunday night they allcrossed paths outside the locker room. There went Richmond, then Higgins,leaving Mullin and former teammate Tom Tolbert, who held a giant cup of beerand, in shorts and a backward hat, looked like a 6'8" frat boy at theworld's greatest kegger. Someone suggested it was a veritable Warriors reunion,to which Tolbert cracked, "It can't be a reunion without ChrisGatling."
No doubt Nelsonwould have appreciated the joke, but he was already gone. After the win he hadwalked off the court and down the tunnel, high-fiving fans as confetti coloredhis white hair, then grabbed his customary Bud Light, followed by his customarysecond Bud Light, which he brought with him to the podium for the pressconference. There, as usual, he played the role of aw-shucks Midwestern coachand praised Dallas, asserting that he was just happy to be part of all thiscraziness. Then he retreated to his downtown Oakland apartment to revel withfriends and have a cigar. It's safe to say that the man had earned it.
One only had to see Mavs coach Avery Johnson rubbing hishead forlornly to know WHICH TEAM WAS THE AGGRESSOR.
"This is as much fun as I've had coaching," saysNelson. "I'VE NEVER ENJOYED A YEAR more than this one."
Photographs by John W. McDonough
PAIR OFWILD CARDS
Nelson has brought out the best in Davis, who went over smaller Mavs defendersand blew past bigger ones.
Double-teaming from Jackson (1), Richardson and various other Warriors held the7-foot Nowitzki in check.
Photographs by John W. McDonough
A record crowd joined Davis (left) and Barnes in relishing Sunday's victory,which put Golden State up 3--1.