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Here he comes now, the Sultan of Small Ball, the Maven of the Mismatch, the Pioneer of the Point Forward, the hottest new old thing in coaching, a 66-year-old, white-haired man with a cup of coffee in one hand, a stubbed-out stogie in the other, a belly that 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, these days, be spit out like an epithet, at least around Dallas--particularly, one imagines, in the lair of a certain hyperactive, media-savvy owner who just 25 months ago was paying Nelson to coach his team.
Nellie. It's a name that conjures images: of the consummate sixth man during his Boston Celtics days; 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 the playoffs. And while fish ties may not be back in vogue (though, really, were they ever?), Nellieball is. On Sunday his Golden State Warriors, for 13 years the hapless riders of the basketball apocalypse, stormed to a 3--1 lead over the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in a first-round series that has been alternately mystifying and--for the long-suffering Bay Area fans now mainlining on Baron Davis half-court heaves and Andris Biedrins dunks--electrifying.
As the Warriors won game after improbable game, members of the national media--carrying hastily printed MapQuest directions, for many had not been to Oakland since, well, that Sprewell business a decade ago--came to ask the same thing of Don Nelson: How the hell was he doing it? How had he taken a team that was so bad in February and made it so good in April? How was eighth-seeded Golden State, which slipped into the Western Conference playoffs on the final day of the regular season, dismantling the 67-win Mavs?
But first they have to wait, for the guru always starts his morning with a cigar and a Starbucks latte on the rooftop of the Warriors' practice facility alongside longtime assistant Larry Riley. Then Nelson shuffles into the gym, trailed by the league's smallest, hairiest entourage: Lucky, a Jack Russell mix, who's a constant, wagging presence in the gym. And only when Nelson has settled on a stool 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. To him, his Warriors are "not very good" or simply "schmoes," a jump-shooting collection of hardwood Forrest Gumps lucking their way through a series against a vastly superior foe.
No one, save perhaps TNT provocateur Charles Barkley, is buying it anymore. The Warriors won the opener in Dallas 97--85 behind a 33-point, 14-rebound, eight-assist performance from Davis; blasted Dallas 109--91 in Game 3 in Oakland; and on Sunday rode the play of Davis again (33 points, eight rebounds, four assists and one half-ending bank shot from midcourt) to a 103--99 victory at Oracle Arena before 20,672 fans, the largest (and, it seemed, loudest) crowd ever to watch a basketball game in California. These were not flukes. The Warriors outshot the Mavs in all three wins and outrebounded them in Game 3. Even if Dallas comes back to take the series, Golden State has exposed its weaknesses--an over-reliance on forward Dirk Nowitzki, a lack of low-post productivity at center--and crippled its confidence. One only had to see Mavs coach Avery Johnson sitting at the postgame podium and rubbing his head forlornly or glimpse owner Mark Cuban's histrionic scowl to know which team was the aggressor. Remember, Johnson was so wary of the Warriors--at week's end he was 1--6 against Golden State this season and 67--12 against the rest of the league--that he changed his lineup before Game 1, surely becoming the first coach to preemptively counter an upset that had yet to occur.
None of this means that the Warriors have suddenly become a great team; they finished 42--40 for a reason. They are, however, peaking at the right time and with such remarkable chemistry that forward Stephen Jackson is right when he says that when the playoffs start, "the regulars go out the window."
When "the regulars" began, last November, Nelson talked of transforming Golden State into a bayside version of the Phoenix Suns, envisioning Mike Dunleavy as a point forward and Troy Murphy as his three-point-shooting center. Only after a Jan. 17 trade with the Indiana Pacers, in which Jackson and forward Al Harrington replaced Dunleavy and Murphy, did that vision become a reality. Even then, the Warriors didn't begin rolling until a March 4 defeat dropped them to seven games under .500 and prompted Nelson to declare the season lost. The next night, with Davis back from left knee surgery, Golden State won at Detroit, then went 16--5 the rest of the way.
In some ways the Warriors might even be better suited to play the Suns' style than the Suns themselves. In Davis, Jackson, Harrington, swingman Jason Richardson, guard Monta Ellis, reserve forward Matt Barnes and reserve swingman Micka�l Pietrus, Nelson has seven unselfish players who can handle the ball, shoot, rebound and play aggressive, trapping defense. (Biedrins, the lanky Latvian center known for sweeping dunks and clanking free throws, fills out the rotation.) The goal is to push, always push. At one point in Game 3, Golden State scored after Davis tossed the ball ahead of the defense to Jackson for a layup--off a side inbounds.
Defensively, the Warriors may be the only team in the league that can switch on every pick-and-roll. All the regulars are long or strong enough to muscle bigs and quick enough to stay with guards. The key, says Nelson: At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Davis is the rare point guard stocky enough to stymie a four. He has done just that to the 7-foot Nowitzki when the two have squared off.
The Mavs are especially vulnerable against a team like Golden State. Dallas centers DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier are usually effective at guarding big men and crashing the offensive boards. But the Warriors provide no obvious matchup--the 6'11" Biedrins is way too fast for the lumbering duo--creating multiple problems. The Warriors can sag off either center to double Nowitzki (who has so far 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 Game 4, 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 at him. The result: lineup roulette. Johnson has started three different quintets in the first four games.