If you still harbor doubts that Don (the Big Whistle) Nelson is the most innovative coach in the NBA, it's time you stash them in the closet with the signature fish ties, the ones Nellie hasn't knotted since leaving Milwaukee for the Golden State Warriors two years ago. Last week the Utah Jazz entered the playoffs young and hungry. The cognoscenti had anointed Karl Malone, John Stockton et al. heirs to the world-champion Los Angeles Lakers, whom Utah took to the limit in last season's Western Conference semifinals. Golden State figured to be nothing but an inconvenience.
But by Saturday night, Nelson's road Warriors had twice run amok in the Salt Palace, flummoxing the Jazz with end-to-end offense and half-court traps in 123-119 and 99-91 victories. "The Big Whistle's blowing," said Garry St. Jean, one of Nelson's assistants, after Golden State had taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. "And he's blowing the whistle heavy."
Added one NBA referee, "Nellie's got the Jazz so screwed up they don't know what they're doing."
Nelson is forward-thinking, all right: forward-thinking, as in, think of everyone as a forward. The one exception is 7'7" Manute Bol, whom you may think of as a center. Bol, however, seems to think of himself as a guard with three-point range. Somewhat confused? That's the general idea. "I've got to encourage us to play to our strengths, and then I've got to practice what I preach," says Nelson. "But everybody on this team understands that."
So that you might better understand Nelson's way of thinking, here's a little NBA 101. In the play-for-pays. some teams go "small" on offense, others play "big," and a few are deep enough to do both. With the lineup Nelson unveiled against Utah, Golden State proposed to play small, looking to isolate a quick player against a mismatched defender in open-court situations. To play big, as the Jazz does, is to structure an offense around a low-post, half-court set.
Lesson Two: Every NBA possession is an exercise in identifying a mismatch and trying to exploit it. Thus, a team that plays big is vulnerable to an opponent that can set a disruptively fast tempo. But in the postseason, teams usually turn conservative, sticking to a half-court game in which size prevails. Not the Warriors. Nelson entered the Utah series determined not to permit the ritual downshifting. "We're going the other way," he said, "win or lose."
Three times this season the Warriors had erupted for 50 or more points in a quarter. In their victory over Utah on Jan. 14, they scored 131, the most anyone would get against the Jazz all season, and they did it with a small lineup. Nelson liked the matchups. At 6'7", Chris Mullin brings big-guard skills to small forward. Rookie of the Year Mitch Richmond plays a big 6'5" at big guard, and Rod Higgins is a quick 6'7" at big forward. Though only 6'2", point man Winston Garland sticks to his man like white on rice, and, inch for inch, 6'8" center Larry Smith is a rebounding fool. What's more, these Lilliputians have their very own Gulliver in Bol, who as a substitute—and as goalie at the back of the trap—would block 13 shots in the first two games of the Utah series and would even jack up a few odd-looking three-pointers. And Nelson lets him. Weird.
In Game 1 the Warriors dictated the open-court game, and not once did Malone take a pass from Stockton for one of those thunder-and-lightning, film-at-11 dunks. Meanwhile, Mullin scored 41 points and Richmond contributed 30. That had Utah coach Jerry Sloan preaching patience in Game 2. The Jazz adjusted well enough and controlled the tempo. By the end of the third quarter Malone had broken out for 37 points and Utah led by three.
Late in the third quarter. Golden State threw a 1-3-1 trap at Utah, a defensive configuration that pinches a forward with two, sometimes three, defenders. "You know what a sardine feels like?" asked Malone—who went scoreless in the final quarter—after the game. 'That's what it felt like."
The Warriors' gamble—that Stockton wouldn't knock down the medium-range jump shots they were conceding him—worked. The Jazz failed to convert 18 of its first 21 shots in the last quarter. During that span Stockton missed eight straight shots, including six consecutive open jumpers. Golden State's trap was the hoops equivalent of the intentional walk, and Stockton whiffed with the bases loaded.
If the Warriors get by the Jazz, their next opponent very likely will be the Phoenix Suns, who beat the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night to take a 2-0 lead in that series. The Suns can play small, which spells trouble for Golden State. That's a shame, for the Warriors' unconventional style gave the three title contenders in the East—the New York Knicks (from whom they swept two games) and the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers (with whom they split)—fits during the regular season. But Golden State's run has served its purpose. With few outstanding college big men on the horizon, more teams may join the Warriors in downsizing. Even if Golden State advances no further than the conference semifinals, Nellie has provided a glimpse of the future, and it is weird. And exciting.