The Warriors continue their drive to the NBA playoffs today against Dallas, and they have a powerful force on their side, coach Don Nelson.
Though the Mavericks are the best in the NBA, the Warriors do well against them — they ended a 17-game Dallas winning streak with a March 12 win — because Nelson knows what to expect from the team he coached for six-plus seasons.
It’s much like Jon Gruden knowing how to beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. In theory, Bill Callahan should have been able to figure out what Gruden was doing with Tampa Bay, but Gruden was smarter. Dallas coach Avery Johnson was an assistant for Nelson, and the mentor is smarter than his pupil.
Nelson always seems to come up with something different.
"When I was playing, he’d come up with some strange lineups and we’d think, ‘There’s no way we can win with this lineup,’" Warriors Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Chris Mullin told me last year. "But, we would."
After Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Nelson was asked how he’d game plan for the Mavs.
"I’ll go to a boiler room behind my apartment tonight with my dog, paper to write on and a bottle of Scotch whisky," he said. "The more Scotch I drink, the better the game plan gets."
Lately, he’s been winning with a small lineup, with Al Harrington, who’s not even ideal size for a strong forward, in the middle. Because he’s never had a dominant big man in his two coaching stints with the Warriors — he speaks wistfully of playing with Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics — he’s devised an offensive scheme that depends on quickness and the fastbreak.
That’s demanding on players because they have to run full out so much, but they like that scheme because they can show the full range of their skills.
Fans like it, too, because it’s highly entertaining.
Nelson is definitely old school as a coach. And that includes speaking very frankly, even critically, about his players. He rested his starters in the fourth quarter Sunday, playing seldom-used reserves, who were outscored 42-15.
"I guess they showed why I haven’t been playing them," he said.
He had high hopes for Mike Dunleavy before the season started, but after Dunleavy had been traded, he said, "He knew what to do. He just couldn’t do it."
The players understand Nelson’s style, and his criticism hasn’t bothered them in his two times with the Warriors, with the conspicuous exception of Chris Webber. This year, they’ve played hard for him, and they’ve kept focused.
In midseason, the Warriors traded Dunleavy and Troy Murphy to Indiana for Stephen Jackson and Harrington. It’s always difficult to get a consistent effort when the team is changed so drastically during the season, but it was an excellent trade.
"It was something we had to do," Nelson said. "Even if it didn’t work out this season, we knew it would be much better for our team next season."
When I asked Nelson if this were his most satisfying season, he thought and finally said, "It’s certainly right there. To have come through everything we have, yes, it’s been very satisfying."
The Warriors were last in the playoffs in the 1993-94 season — when Nelson was the coach. Now that he’s returned, they are on the cusp of the playoffs again. That’s not a coincidence.