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DONNIE NELSON WAS AN ASSISTANT COACH FOR THE Warriors in 1990 when Kidd was a sensation at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High in Alameda, Calif. Nelson spent his free time playing pickup games at parks in Oakland and Alameda, often on the same court as Kidd. The most memorable games, though, were inside a carpet warehouse where a friend of Nelson's worked. The friend knew the code for the alarm system, and late at night he turned it off and created a makeshift gym on the warehouse floor, hanging baskets from forklifts. "You were surrounded by stacks of carpets all the way to the ceiling," Nelson says.
Nelson admired the way Kidd attacked the forklift and also the way he set up his teammates. When Kidd was still in high school, Nelson was inviting him to practice with the Warriors before training camp.
Nelson joined the Mavs' organization in 1998—a year after Kidd was traded to the Suns—and became president in 2002. In his tenure Dallas has had great success with scoring point guards like Terry, Steve Nash and Devin Harris. But during the 2006 Finals it became clear that Nowitzki was carrying too much of the playmaking burden. "We put him on the right block, the left block, the high post, and then he had to score and pass and make every play out of every double team," Nelson says. "We needed somebody to make Dirk's job easier. That was Jason Kidd. He is the reason Dirk is fresher now."
The Mavericks acquired Kidd from the Nets in February 2008 for a package that included Harris, then signed Kidd to a three-year contract for more than $25 million in the summer of '09. They were gambling that he could play at a championship level until he was 39, even though John Stockton was the only point guard to ever come close.
The Mavericks were aware of the skills that Kidd had lost, but they also knew of an essential one he had gained. Since the warehouse days Kidd could drive, pass, rebound and see the floor as if through a CIA satellite. But he couldn't shoot. Defenses sagged off him. He was nicknamed Ason because he had no J. The teasing got so bad with New Jersey near the end of the 2005--06 season that when then shooting coach Bob Thate was playing around with Kidd's seven-year-old son, T.J., at the team's practice facility, he asked Jason, "Why can't your form be as good as your son's?"
The next year Kidd and Thate worked together nearly every day, overhauling the point guard's mechanics, forcing him to straighten his posture, heighten his arc and lock his elbow. Before Kidd returned to Dallas, he was a 33.4% three-point shooter. Since then he has shot 39.5%; almost two thirds of his field goal attempts this season were threes. "If I couldn't do this," he says of his improved shooting, "I'd probably be done."
The Mavs limited Kidd to the fewest minutes per game of his career this season and buffered him with two reserves who could assume his defensive assignments, J.J. Barea and Rodrigue Beaubois. Kidd lifted leg weights at least five days a week, a habit he picked up after undergoing microfracture left-knee surgery in '04. He has missed only five games in the past three seasons, none due to injury.
The public has become wary of athletes who defy age, but Kidd shows the predictable wear. He averaged a career low in points this year and the fewest assists (8.2) since he was a rookie. Even his three-point shooting slumped back to 34.0%. Barea, as swift now as Kidd once was, overshadowed him at times.
But when the Trail Blazers sagged off Kidd in Game 1 of the first round, he sank 6 of 10 threes. Entering the Finals he was 35.6% from beyond the arc during the playoffs. The Mavericks are difficult to defend because of their many perimeter options, and Kidd is usually the one left alone. "Late in the shot clock, he'll be open," says 76ers president Rod Thorn, who had been with Kidd in New Jersey.