Mavericks prepare for familiar first-round foe: Nellie

DALLAS (AP) -- Watching from a tunnel as the Dallas Mavericks played in the NBA finals last season, Don Nelson had to feel like a proud father.

In many ways, he was -- with his son running the front office, close friends he'd hired coaching the team and guys he'd molded such as Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard leading the way on the floor.

Nellie will have an even closer look at the Mavs at the start of this postseason. He'll be coaching against them.

Now guiding the Golden State Warriors, Nelson's club snagged the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs on the final day of the season. As luck would have it, their first-round foe is the Mavericks, who are coming off a 67-win season that tied the sixth-most in league history.

So put aside the relationships. Nelson's goal starting Sunday night in Dallas will be to destroy the monster of a club he created.

"It's going to be a good old fashioned family feud," said Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks' president of basketball operations and the son of the Warriors' coach. "I'm sure when Nellie comes down, we'll get the kids together and hang out and have a good meal. Then the next day we'll try to rip each other's throats out."

Mavericks coach Avery Johnson's relationship with Don Nelson dates to the 1993-94 season, when they were together in Golden State. Nelson made Johnson a full-time starting point guard for the first time in his career that season and was rewarded with a trip to the playoffs. This is the Warriors' first time back since then.

Reunited as player and coach in Dallas a few years ago, they later hatched a succession plan. Johnson was to eventually replace Nelson as coach of the Mavericks. Eventually came much sooner than expected, with Johnson taking over in March 2005 after only 64 games. He got Dallas into the NBA finals last year, his first full season in charge.

Because Nelson was around last season as a consultant, he's still very familiar with the Mavericks. And because he's still a heck of a coach, Golden State went 3-0 against Dallas this season. The Warriors spoiled the game when the Mavs dropped a banner honoring their Western Conference title and later ended a 17-game winning streak.

So Nellie's return for the first round is about more than nostalgia. It could be a tough start for the Mavericks in their bid to win the title they lost in heartbreaking fashion last summer.

"I think it's great for the NBA," Johnson said. "He and I have had a long history together ... (but) the teams are going to decide it."

Postseason reunions are becoming common for the Mavericks. Two years ago, it was Steve Nash in the second round. Last year, it was Michael Finley in the second round and Nash in the conference finals. So Nowitzki isn't too worked up about seeing his old coach.

"It's fine," he said. "It doesn't matter who we play against. Every team in the playoffs is good and presents problems. Obviously we know Nellie's style is up and down and it's all about matchup problems. He's got a great lineup to do that. We just have to be solid. Nothing new."

Nelson's impact on Mavs history is best summed up this way: They won 13 games a few years after he arrived. They lost 15 this season.

Nelson arrived as the general manager in February 1996. Both were damaged goods, Dallas because of a roster of misfits and Nelson because of messy departures from the Warriors and New York Knicks.

He named himself coach early in the 1997-98 season, then traded for Nash and Nowitzki on draft day in 1998. He was still seeking his first winning season with the Mavericks when Mark Cuban bought the team in early 2000.

Cuban decided to keep Nelson and give him whatever he needed to succeed. Tapping into those resources, Nelson got the Mavs into the playoffs in 2000-01 and even won a series. They set a franchise record with 60 wins two years later and got to the conference finals. A failed experiment of cramming the lineup with scorers resulted in a drop-off in '04.

Johnson arrived as the coach-in-waiting the following season. Nellie even let AJ take the team out for a spin a few times early in the season, an unusual gesture that just seemed to make sense for this coach and this protege. The breaking-in paid off when some medical issues forced Nelson to leave the team for a few weeks.

When Nelson returned, he realized his players were responding to Johnson's Cajun twang better than his Midwestern tone. He resigned 18 games before the playoffs, parting on good terms with everyone but Cuban. As the winningest coach in team history, Nelson is especially popular among fans, many of them patrons of a sports bar he partly owns. It's called "Nellies," of course.

"It's a welcomed matchup," guard Jason Terry said. "We're all excited."


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