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Star of the show

Nellie unexpectedly in the spotlight during postseason

Posted: Thursday April 26, 2007 3:05PM; Updated: Thursday April 26, 2007 6:06PM
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Don Nelson has become ... mainstream.
Don Nelson has become ... mainstream.

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So long as Phil Jackson has been coaching, the story of his teams has dwelt upon Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant. In San Antonio it's always been about Tim Duncan instead of Gregg Popovich, just as Steve Nash is the story in Phoenix more so than Mike D'Antoni.

The NBA is a player's league -- with one momentary exception. The surprise star of the playoffs has become Warriors coach Don Nelson. He is the story heading into the second week.

The Warriors' late run to secure their first postseason berth in 13 years and their shocking destruction of the Mavericks in Game 1 has returned 66-year-old Nellie to prominence in unexpected ways. One year ago he might have been found lounging at his ornate Hawaiian villa, trying to make sense of retirement and not sure what to do with himself. One year later he is more relevant than maybe he's ever been.

In his previous stints as coach of Milwaukee, Golden State (1988-95), New York (for a brief time) and Dallas, Nelson was always just outside the frame of the central NBA picture. Apart from Bob Lanier in Milwaukee and a brief moment spent with Patrick Ewing in New York, he didn't have the traditionally dominant center; Nelson was the eccentric who grew to prefer offense over defense, and the universal feeling was that he would never be able to win a championship playing his way. The Mavs traded him out two years ago for Avery Johnson, who has reinvented them around the conventional themes of defense and controlled half-court offense.

Ultimately the Mavericks will prevail in this series. They travel to Oakland this weekend knowing they were 36-5 on the road this year because of their stubborn devotion to Johnson's teachings. They won Game 2 on Wednesday 112-99 as Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson lost their way and Dirk Nowitzki (a mildly encouraging 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting) found his. The NBA's dominant team is too talented and disciplined to not overcome this group of Nellie-come-latelies.

Having said all of that, isn't it something how after all these years the NBA overall is trending back to Nelson?

So he's once again gone small with 6-foot-9 Al Harrington at center ... so too has most of the league. The Pistons are hoping to win with converted forward Chris Webber at center. In this increasingly fluid era, more than a few NBA executives say they would prefer Amaré Stoudemire's full-court explosiveness and versatility at center over the traditional post-up game of Yao Ming. Even Johnson was momentarily convinced to go small in Game 1 before referring back to his own coaching manual and giving Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop a combined 41 minutes in the second game.

So he still relies on gimmick defenses ... the Warriors' double-teaming has had the desired effect on Nowitzki, and the Mavs are shooting 41.6 percent overall in the series. Nellie's approach to mixing up his defenses has been embraced by none other than Pistons president Joe Dumars, a traditionalist in every sense, who nonetheless credits the rotations and traps with improving Detroit at the defensive end this season.

So he wants to score a ton of points ... who wouldn't? The league's evolving guidelines are ensuring that teams will be rewarded for attacking the basket. Nellie is riding a winning wave on this one.

If the Warriors can come up with an explosive shot-blocker and rebounder at power forward to pair up front with Harrington, and if they can keep the rest of this unit intact without having to surrender Jason Richardson to salary-cap concerns, then it's not beyond the realm to imagine Nelson someday contending for a championship with these Warriors.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but Nellie has become mainstream.

P.S.: He won't take that as a compliment.


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