The Defense Rests
The season hasn't yet started, but I think Don Nelson is drunk. Donnie Nelson might be, too; who can tell? Half the Mavs fans in this room are loaded and twisted, and the other half are well on their way. It's early, but I have no idea what time it is. Maybe 7 o'clock. I've already had a few myself.
But, yeah, I'm pretty sure the Mavericks head coach is feeling gooood. This is not the way the burly 62-year-old usually acts during post-practice interviews, and it's certainly not how he acts on the sideline. That's probably where he should be right now, on the sideline in Memphis, guiding his charges against the Grizzlies in the season opener, lumbering and gesticulating, his ample belly protruding like an overstuffed bear's. That's where he would be, too, if the NBA hadn't suspended him and Donnie, a Mavs assistant coach, for two games over a bunch of nonsense. (The two Nelsons were in a Belgrade gym with a bunch of Yugos--the people, not the cars--who were ineligible for the draft. It was a ridiculous punishment, but Mavs owner Mark Cuban hasn't made many friends in the league office, so it figures. Commissioner David Stern likely told his cronies to put the fine on Cuban's tab.)
So although assistant coach Del Harris takes command in Tennessee tonight, the Nelsons are here, in a private room at Dave and Buster's near Interstate 35 and Walnut Hill, along with a few hundred fans, a platoon of media types, a handful of team dancers and an endless supply of booze and beer. There's a small movie screen against the far wall to broadcast the game, and faint music plays in the background. For now, The Don is all the entertainment these people need. He's shaking hands and posing for pictures and kissing people...and laughing. He's been laughing this robust laugh, loud and long. The man should've run against Kirk and Cornyn. He would have won.
"I'm having a great time," Nellie says over his shoulder while autographing some dude's elbow. "This sure beats watching it at home. I just hope the NBA has a sense of humor about it."
Probably not, but that doesn't make it any less amusing. The Nelsons showed up wearing old-school prison uniforms--black and white striped hats and shirts--and name tags that read "Dallas Mavericks Correctional Facility." They had balls and chains attached to their legs. "Come see Coach Nelson's balls," Nellie quipped when he walked in. The crowd ate it up.
Earlier, he and Donnie did a spot on The Hardline, the afternoon drive-time sports-talk show on KTCK-AM (1310). Donnie played straight man while Nellie sprayed one-liners across the room with Gatling-gun speed. The man had jokes; the assembly roared.
"We're in the slammer," Nellie told hosts Greg Williams and Mike Rhyner, "and we're trying to make the best of it. My roommate Bubba's been good to us." Then he paused, and smiled a sly smile and said: "We're hoping for DNA testing..."
That's the way it's been going--crazy. The room has become a mini-fraternity party, an Animal House, with Nellie subbing for John Belushi. It's a side to the man that few in the press have seen. Oh, he's genial and accommodating at work, but I wouldn't say he's fun. Not like this.
The game is about to tip. The Nelsons are seated next to each other at a long table that's off to the side of the room but has a prime view of the big screen. The Don is sitting sideways on his chair with his legs spread. He looks comfortable. One hand rests on the left knee that juts out from under the table; the other secures a half-empty Bud Light bottle in a powerful grip.
A Dallas Morning News reporter leans in and asks Nellie how into the game he plans to get.
"Oh, I don't know," he says with another silly grin, "depends on how many beers I have." As the jump ball goes up, Nellie thrusts both arms into the air in the manner of a football ref and lets out a "Yeaaaaah."
This scene is strange, no doubt, but it's full of promise, too. Not for the season--who the hell knows what will happen with that?--but for tonight. More specifically, for the maintenance of my buzz.
"If the Mavs win," Nellie promises, "I'm buying everyone in the room beer."
God bless that man.
You've probably heard about the sign by now. Deep inside the American Airlines Center, on the practice court, the Mavs employed a unique motivational tool. What would Pavlov call it? Negative reinforcement? Whatever, it was true and telling.
Ouch. Beating Dirk Nowitzki into a bloody mess with the stat book would have been more subtle.
That was the genesis for the incessant "defense" talk, unfortunately. Unless you're illiterate or have a real life, you've read the countless stories and heard the innumerable radio and TV reports that suggest this team will undergo a defensive renaissance, that the Mavs will no longer be known only as an offensive power. The team started feeding the press that tripe on media day, and kept shoveling it right on through the preseason. Naturally, a lot of them swallowed hard. And why not?
Oh, you're going to get better defensively? Well...how? Right. Because you say so. We hadn't thought of that...OK, we'll run it at 11...
Now, there's no question they need to get better on defense. Last year, the Mavericks ranked 28th out of 29 teams defensively, surrendering 101 points per game. That's just one spot ahead of the Golden State Warriors, a team that played defense like the French at the Maginot line.
Perhaps Nelson will be the guy to effect the change. The porous defense obviously wore on him last year, and he does know how to coach that end of the floor--during his tour in Milwaukee, his squads routinely ranked in the top 10 in defense. But the personnel on those teams was a might different from what he has now. You go tell Nowitzki and Steve Nash and Michael Finley to take a charge instead of drain threes and throw pretty no-looks. And good luck with all that.
No, despite the company line, it's hard to see this defensive push as much more than a protean endeavor.
"They really don't have that sort of team," says one NBA Western Conference scout. "When they started saying they were going to play defense....yeah, interesting. I'll have to wait, like, you know, 10 games into the season to tell if they're making an effort, but I'm not buying it right now, no."
If they do turn it around, it will be with essentially the same lineup they ran at the end of the year (out are Greg Buckner, Wang Zhizhi, Danny Manning and Johnny Newman; in are Popeye Jones and Raja Bell). A lineup that allowed its opponents to shoot a robust 45.2 percent from the field.
"I really do believe that we'll be better," Del Harris says. "We've been getting on them about defense, that's been the theme so far, and they look like they know that's what we have to do. They're ready to work."
That part of it--the working, or the lack of same--will be integral in deciding the club's fortune. True, the Mavs figure to win 50-plus games and scream into the playoffs. But the postseason is a different entity, completely unique in its demands. It requires not only smooth shooting but also true grit. "Defense" becomes synonymous with "bar fight," and the games can morph into elbow shots and kidney-bruising punches.
So the question becomes, who among them will throw down? Are their collective balls bigger, or was Nick Van Exel right last season when he wondered aloud about the Mavericks' toughness?
"We need to do some of that, yeah," Finley says after practice as sweat streams down from his closely cropped hair. "Hey, losing makes you tough. Heartbreak, the Kings series, makes us tougher. To get better as a team, we have to get tougher. But...we can try to do all these things--play defense and get tougher--but, really, that's not what our team is about. We're not going to be the old [Detroit] Pistons. That's not our style. We're great shooters. We can score. We don't have a lot of guys who will bang."
At least he's honest.
Take this next bit for what it's worth: Shawn Bradley, the resident "defensive stopper," the guy everyone keeps telling me can alter a game with his presence, was in an intersquad scrimmage during a preseason practice when he was called for some foul or another. It was really no big thing. Bradley made it a big thing. He bitched and moaned for a few long minutes.
Later, when the ref who called the foul was taking a breather on the sideline, he took a Mavericks assistant coach into his confidence. "Why is Bradley always crying?" the official whispered. "He's 7-foot-6. I mean...fuck."
Mavs PR staffer Sarah Melton has now delivered three beers or so to Don Nelson, all of which sit in front of him like some sort of wonderful new currency. His stash of alcohol mocks me. I have no beer, and damn it, I haven't seen the waiter in....in...must be minutes now. The next time Melton comes by here, I'm going to tackle her like Darren Woodson and run off with the shipment.
It could be that Nellie can see the thirst on my face. That, or he's just in a benevolent mood.
"Want one of my beers?" he asks, thrusting a sweaty Bud Light into my hand before turning back to the game. It's the second quarter. The Mavs are winning 53-42. It's their biggest lead of the first half.
Donnie, who is also the team's president of basketball operations, is in the middle of telling Mike Rhyner that Bradley is having a good game. I hate to say it, I hate to even think it, but he's right; Bradley isn't doing half-bad. That idea runs contrary to what I've believed of Bradley for much of my life--he's a nice guy, but as a basketball player he's an incompetent clod who provides nothing but comic relief.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Donnie nailed it. Maybe Bradley has improved.
Suddenly, the din grows thick with booooos. The crowd is going nuts. The fans are absolutely losing their f-ing minds. From behind several people, I crane my neck toward the screen. The replay is ugly but familiar: Bradley just missed a dunk. Disdain washes over me for the umpteenth time. I swear, if the Mavs somehow lose this game and Bradley costs me free cold beer, the next time I see him I'm going to smash his big Popsicle-stick legs.
Some guy in the back screams what I'm thinking: "Trade him! For the love of God, trade him!"
Grabbing a beer from the delinquent waiter, I push over toward Nellie. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter is asking him something or other. Sounds serious--real sports journalism stuff.
"Screw that," I say, pushing the journo aside while swaying ominously. The drinks are beginning to take hold. "What I want to know is, doesn't Bradley drive you mad? When he misses dunks, doesn't that make you insane?"
The Star-T guy is either mildly tickled or slightly pissed, I'm not sure which. I'm not sure what Nellie makes of the interruption, either. He has an odd look on his face, a crinkly mass of skin that has settled somewhere between horror and curiosity.
"Well, I guess it depends," he says, leaning back in his chair, away from me. "If he's all by himself and he trips and falls....yeah."
Finally. I've been waiting years to hear that from a coach.
I know now that I'll die happy.
You want the truth? Defense, toughness, style of offense, color of the uniforms, food in the postgame spread--it's all ancillary. The Mavericks' fate will be guided most often by their three stars. Which is how it should be, though that guarantees nothing, least of all a trip to the Western Conference Finals. And isn't that where they have to go to even utter the word "success?" Because anything less than a strong showing in the penultimate postseason series would be a grand failure, wouldn't it?
"The pressure is there, sure," Nowitzki says. "We have enough big weapons; we have enough skills to launch the pressure. We have to handle it. That's just part of this game."
Nash, Nowitzki and Finley are as talented a trio as you'll find in the league; on that almost everyone agrees. Nash has developed into an all-star; he's adept on the break and has a singular ability to find a crease in the defense and then kick to the open man or score the ball himself. Nowitzki, meanwhile, is on everybody's short list of the best players in the league, and Finley remains one of the Mavs' best offensive options.
At face, there's little wrong with that crew. Problem is, the Mavs play in the Western Conference, where large, one-named forces like Shaq and Kobe, C-Webb and Rasheed and Duncan patrol. Each of those players has played in at least one Western Conference Final during his career. Conversely, the three Mavs mainstays have played in...let's see now...oh, here it is: none.
In terms of depth, Dallas is probably better off than the Lakers, Kings, Blazers or Spurs. Where the problem materializes is late in games, or into the playoffs, where leadership takes on paramount importance. Even the Lakers, who have suffered through well-documented spats between their two stars, developed a tacit understanding that it's Shaq's team. And therein lies the trouble: Whose team is this?
There's been a lot of noise about Finley stepping into that role, as well he should. There's no one better suited for the gig. He's a veteran, someone well-respected by his teammates. But for some reason, it's hard to envision the reticent swingman in that capacity. Finley comes off as quiet and modest, which are fine traits in a man, but not so much in a leader whose job it is to demand excellence and inspire confidence.
"Look, it's been put to me like this," Finley counters. "In order for us to be a better team and do what we need to do--to go where we want to go--I've gotta be more vocal. That's it. If that's what it takes to win, that's what I'll do."
If he does, and if they play defense and if they nut up and start fighting, they might be able to sneak through the murderous West. If. Right now it's all talk, and they already do too much of that. They did a good deal of jawing last year, too, and you already know how that tale ended.
"We've said it over and over and over: Talk is cheap," Nash says. "We can talk all we want about beating the Lakers or the Kings, but the fact is we haven't done it when it matters. We need to do it when it matters."
The Mavs are up 15, 79-64, with somewhere around eight minutes to go in the third quarter. That's all the info I have. Not too many others in this joint could do much better. The pretense of professionalism has long since vanished. The watching party has devolved into a drinking party. Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams is whooping it up around here somewhere, and the cheerleaders are making their rounds while getting bombarded with lascivious glares. Good times.
The Nelsons haven't slowed, not even a little bit. I'm fighting like mad to keep pace, but they're men and I'm not. Empty beer bottles litter the table in front of them and the floor behind me. They must have concrete-reinforced bladders.
Raef LaFrentz just tipped a shot in--a fine, athletic play. Since when does he scrap on the blocks?
"That's what he has to do," Nellie says. "He has to hit the boards for us."
As he turns to a friend, I sidle up close to Nellie, expecting him to drop more knowledge about the game. After all, who better to educate me on basketball nuances than Nellie? I ready my pen in anticipation of brilliance.
"Better move," Nellie says to his pal. "I think I'm gonna pee my damn pants."
There's a passage in Dante's Inferno where Virgil comes upon a hermit pope in hell. The pope is there because he shirked his responsibilities and acted improperly. He knew what he was doing, and where it would lead, but he did it anyway. It's a rough analogy, but that's essentially what's happened to the Mavs as a result of Mark Cuban's sometimes poisonous personality. There can be no denying that yelling at refs like a loon and making snide remarks about various NBA policies have been detrimental to the club. Consequently, the Mavs get scrutinized. They've been marked. Cuban would never admit it, but his actions have adversely affected his squad.
It's hard to get a read on the man. He's bright and driven, but he can also be childish and overbearing. It's the latter side, the dyspeptic manner, that frequently gets him into trouble and causes the league office to dip deep into his pockets.
So this season isn't just about on-court basketball. It's also about how the Mavs' growth might be stunted by the one man who, more than anyone else, wants to see them excel.
"There's a perception about Mark, yeah," says a longtime East Coast NBA scribe. "Some people love his energy, but he's made a lot of enemies, too. The players...they love him, right? Nellie loves him, right? Everyone over there loves him. But, in the back of their mind, they've got to know that some of the things he does make things difficult on them for no good reason."
I tried asking Cuban about it, along with a host of other questions, but he decided to be cute and condescending instead of professional. (Hey, that's my job.) My favorite was his response to the organization's lack of substantial off-season moves: "I got bored. I couldn't find anyone to make trades with me so I got married instead."
He finished the e-mail by taking a shot at "reporters who find that asking what's been asked is the best they can do. Then I wait for them to write the same thing that's already been written." I guess he was talking about me. That's fine. He's entitled to his opinion, though the way he sometimes presents himself speaks volumes.
The man could be huge--a positive force, a Pied Piper type. Instead, he chooses to act up and act out. He clearly wants what's best for his team, and by extension the fans, but what he wants and how he carries himself are often in direct conflict. Wouldn't it be pragmatic for him to tone it down? Not to say that he has to abandon the fight, because that's part of his charm, and it can, at times, serve a purpose, but picking his spots would make real sense. If nothing else, it would dim the spotlight on the Mavs and ease some of the attendant pressure.
The whole thing can be distilled to this: There's something to be said for being comfortable with who you are, but when the maturity of a 40-something constantly has to be questioned and factored into wins and losses, something is amiss.
There are only a few minutes left in the Grizzlies game. A little while ago, I said my goodbyes and was ready to sneak out. My bed was, and still is, calling me. It's a seductive cry, and I'd love to answer it, but my work here isn't done.
The Mavs have blown a good portion of their 20-point lead. (I'm sure Bradley is behind it somehow, but my notes are too muddled to indict him.) The crowd has abandoned most of the frenetic side activities and focused in on the game. They are starting to get nervous, even quiet and a little worried. Meanwhile, the fans in Memphis are getting behind their team--you can hear their cheers through the speakers.
Our celebration, the one that looked so certain for the last two-plus hours, can't possibly be ruined by a loss to the lowly Grizz, can it?
In fact, it can't. It's the Mavs' night. With close to three minutes left, Raef LaFrentz tips in another ball and puts Dallas up by nine. Everyone at Dave and Buster's breathes a little easier, and the clock slowly ticks its way down to a Mavericks victory. Nellie shoots both arms back into the air; Donnie spreads a crescent grin over his mug; the congress hoots wildly, and the party kicks back up. (As an aside, the Mavs tell anyone who will listen that the opponents' field goal percentage this year will be the barometer for defensive achievement. The Grizzlies, who lost 59 of 82 games a year ago, shot 55.8 percent tonight... Yup, that's some fine work.)
A chant of "Nell-y, Nell-y" goes up from the masses. They're happy for the win, and for his company, but my guess is that they want their free beer. Who can blame them?
I don't envy Nellie. This suspension he and Donnie got cost the team $150,000, and who knows what the bar tab will run--these people look thirsty. Beyond that, he's going to have to coach soon enough, and that figures to be considerably more taxing. The odds on him ushering the Mavs to an NBA title are long (7-to-1 in Vegas). Then, predictions can be tricky business, particularly through the liquor fog.
But that's all heavy stuff and better suited for a more somber, and sober, occasion. For tonight, the Mavericks are undefeated and Nellie is a champion of the people. As the party winds on, that's all anyone here can ask.
Well, for that and some free beer.
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