I'll readily admit that I haven't made it much of a priority yet to watch the NBA playoffs -- I usually wait until at least the second round, once the riff-raff has been summarily dismissed from the party -- but one story line that's been impossible to ignore has been the performance of the Golden State Warriors, who stand on the verge of knocking off the No. 1 seed Dallas Mavericks tonight.
No one has ever questioned the Warriors' talent, but after two years of aimless direction under Mike Montgomery and myriad injuries (most notably to star guard Baron Davis), many wondered if they ever would become more than a bottom feeder in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
Turns out, all they needed was a little luck -- and a little Nellie.
Surely, not even the most ardent Don Nelson supporter thought he had this in him when he made his not-so-triumphant return to the franchise that first branded him a coaching genius. Certainly not after being cast off so irreverently by the Mavericks, who believed Nelson protege Avery Johnson could lead them to the promised land sooner than the mentor.
Yet, here the aging teacher stands, showing the student that he still has a few tricks to teach.
Nelson has played this series perfectly. On the floor, he has put together an offensive game plan designed to exploit the defensive weaknesses of a team that has improved in that area under Johnson, but still employs essentially the same players as when Nellie roamed the Dallas sidelines. His defenders have swarmed and overwhelmed Dirk Nowitzki -- the player he, himself, drafted out of Germany -- at every turn, to the point that Nowitzki seems to have resigned himself to his fate.
"I got to take what they give me and they don't really give me a lot. So I've got to make other stuff happen -- help out on defense more; hit the glass harder, as hard as I can, get some extra possessions; if I have a shot, try to knock it down and if I don't, move the ball and let someone else make a shot."To that, Johnson responds:
"I'm tired of hearing about how they've taken him out of his game and any lack of confidence. You're just not supposed to have that, all right? I wasn't the best of players and didn't have the best of skills, but you were not going to shake my confidence. We need all of our players to be confident, to be resilient, to be persistent and that's what I want to see tomorrow. If I don't see it at shootaround, I'm going to be highly upset ... because I need to have it going into that game tomorrow night. We've got to be confident and really sure about what we're doing."Nelson, ever the mad scientist, seems to have mixed the perfect concoction to cause the Mavs to implode. Off the court, he's channeled his inner Lou Holtz, consistently singing the praises of the Mavs while lamenting his team's inability to match up with the mighty No. 1 seed. Check out these quotes (my italics added):
After game 1: "It was really a super win for our team. It was something that was unexpected, and that makes it that much better."Absolutely classic Nellie, who's even got the series' best player -- Baron Davis -- in on the "aw, shucks!" schtick.
"We don't expect to be world champs at the end of the playoffs. But every time we play in a high-intensity game like these are going to be, we gain experience. I'm really happy about that."
"We knew if we could keep it close we could have a chance. This win gives us a lot of confidence, but this team has been to the championship and one loss is not going to affect them."
Before game 2: "I think (the Mavericks will) do just fine the second game, they'll be dominant as they should be, and they'll probably mop us up, you know what I mean? We've got a better chance to get hit by lightning than to win tomorrow night."
After game 2: "We're not good enough to lose a player to an ejection, much less two. It hurt us when we lost Baron. I thought we had a shot at the time. It wasn't to be."
After game 3 (Remember, this is after the Warriors already won one game in Dallas.): "I think we caught them off-guard tonight."What it all adds up to is perhaps the most spectacular collapse in the history of the NBA playoffs, which, as a Sonics fan, is just fine by me. Intead of endless pictures of Dikembe Mutombo laying on his back, clutching a basketball after knocking off the No. 1 seed Sonics, we'll have pictures of Davis sinking a half-court shot.
After game 4: "Every game we play is a learning process and an adventure," and "Coming into the playoffs, Coach [Don Nelson] said we had nothing to lose. We just wanted to be in the playoffs for this city, for the whole Bay Area."
After all, that Denver win was in a five-game series. This kind of stuff wasn't supposed to happen anymore.
"We have a great deal of respect for the Dallas Mavericks," Nelson said. "If any team can come back from this, it's them."Riiiiiiiiiiiight.