The Mavericks' hopes for beating Miami rest largely with Jason Kidd, who, at the age of 38, can still teach the league's flashier players a thing or two about passing, defending and hitting clutch threes
This is an article from the June 6, 2011 issue
The first horn sounds and four Mavericks hop out of their folding chairs and rush over to the scorer's table. Tyson Chandler turns to the crowd and flexes like a cage fighter. Jason Terry waves his arms as if he's forming snow angels. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion find a spot on the court and fidget. Fifteen seconds pass. The second horn sounds. Only then does Jason Kidd slowly rise from his seat and join his Dallas teammates.
Over 17 years a man can learn every nuance of his workplace, and this is just one quirk that Kidd has uncovered about the NBA: A full timeout lasts 100 seconds, but play does not actually resume for 115 seconds. The differential might seem insignificant, but it adds up. Each team gets six full timeouts per game, plus breaks before the second and fourth quarters. By consistently spending every possible second on the bench, Kidd accrues an extra three-plus minutes of rest per game, which is more than four hours extra per season. "That's four hours of energy you haven't wasted standing around and waiting," says Kidd. "Four hours of energy you may need coming down the stretch."
At 38, Kidd is the oldest starting point guard in NBA Finals history, approaching the final turn of his season and soon his career. Terry, 33, marvels that Kidd can even tie his shoes anymore. Nowitzki, 32, refers to Kidd as a fossil and begs him to shave his head before every playoff series so the team is not demoralized by seeing gray hair. "You look too rough," Nowitzki tells him. But unlike the usual Finals convalescents, hanging around just to earn their first ring, Kidd is still scrapping for his: leading all playoff participants in steals, ranking second in assists, tying for third in three-pointers made. He is the key to the Mavericks' exquisite ball movement, streaky outside shooting and offensive unpredictability. With opponents becoming increasingly familiar with the Mavericks' sets this postseason, coach Rick Carlisle has entrusted Kidd to call most of their plays on the fly, and he acknowledges the team has been more dynamic as a result.
If Dallas's matchup with the Heat does boil down to Nowitzki versus LeBron James, two former MVPs trading fourth-quarter rainbows, Kidd will be the main reinforcement in the battle royal, force-feeding Nowitzki and using all his defensive wiles to wear down James. The Mavericks could be overwhelmed physically in this series—Kidd gives up four inches, 40 pounds and 12 years to James—but they enjoy an obvious edge in experience and guile, with a floor leader who sits in front of his locker after every game tapping notes into his cellphone while teammates assume he is texting. The Mavs don't produce as many highlights as Miami, but they also don't make many mistakes, and in the final minutes they are nearly flawless. "That's Jason Kidd," says Chandler. "He's the one who keeps us under control, who makes sure we keep our head." The center points to his right temple, the gesture Kidd is constantly making to him whenever he sees Chandler flexing a bit too emphatically.
The Year of the Point Guard, ruled by those ballhandling contortionists with their devious crossovers and whirlybird leaps, has been hijacked by a middle-aged facilitator who averaged a mere 7.9 points during the regular season, who barely leaves the ground and whose drives look more like power walks. Kidd used to be about as athletic as Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, but even then, shots were last resorts. The pass-first point, an endangered species today, is apparently still valuable. Kidd recognizes that 7-foot Nowitzki likes the ball delivered high, around the letters, and backcourt mate Terry wants it fast because he often fires before feeling the seams. Kidd leads all active players with 46,689 regular-season minutes—not including 15 straight playoff runs and 56 wins in international play—and all that time has sapped his speed. But his peripheral vision remains so keen that a teammate can stand behind one of Kidd's shoulders and he can tell who it is. "Sometimes Jason hits you in a place where you don't think you can make a play," Chandler says, "but he knows you can."
Players have been saying this kind of thing about Kidd for nearly two decades, since the Mavericks drafted him out of Cal with the second pick in 1994, back when Don Carter was the team owner and Mark Cuban an excitable season-ticket holder. After a quintessential performance from Kidd—two points, 10 assists, one turnover—in the Game 5 clincher over the Thunder in the Western Conference finals, he sought out Carter in the celebration at center court and told him, "I thought we'd be doing this 17 years ago."
The Heat has been slotted in the Finals for 11 months. The Mavericks are an unexpected entry, here mainly because Nowitzki has forgotten how to miss, but also because Kidd smothered Lakers star Kobe Bryant for crucial stretches of the second round and stripped Oklahoma City's 6'9" Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer, repeatedly in the third. "I didn't think he could do that," says Chandler. For all of Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaways, Kidd even made the pivotal shot, a sideline three at OKC in Game 4 that broke an overtime tie and capped an epic 15-point comeback. After putting in 41 frantic minutes, Kidd relived the shot with Nowitzki on the bus ride to the airport—then fell asleep during the conversation.
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. "It's like you were playing in a long tunnel of carpet."
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 in the 2006 Finals, when the Mavericks lost in six games to the Heat, 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 was the godsend for Dirk. He is the reason Dirk is fresher now."
The Mavericks acquired Kidd from the Nets in February 2008 for a package that included Harris and then signed him to a three-year contract for more than $25 million in the summer of '09. They were gambling that Kidd could play at a championship level until he was 39, even though no point guard had ever done that, and only John Stockton had really come close.
The Mavericks were aware of the skills Kidd had lost, but they also knew about 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. Teammates took his money in three-point contests. 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?"
Kidd had a habit of turning sideways when he shot, falling away from the basket and releasing the ball low and off-balance. He also did not extend his arm on his follow-through, and when he finally asked Thate for help, their first priority was locking his elbow at the end of his stroke. "Lock it up" became their mantra, a line adopted from the comedy Wedding Crashers. Before games Thate and T.J. shouted at Kidd, "You better lock it up!" parroting the exchange between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in the movie.
Thate trained Kidd four days a week, and also worked extensively with then Nets center Nenad Krstic. When Krstic hurt his knee midway through the '06--07 season, Thate approached Kidd on the team plane and said, "Nenad is hurt. I'm going to be bored to death. Let's shoot every day."
Kidd, then 33, realized his career was at stake. He was slowing, and unless he became a perimeter threat, teams would not have to guard him. At the same time he harbored doubts that it was even possible for him to change. His extraordinary peripheral vision, ideal for a distributor, is not as helpful for a sniper. Every time Kidd elevates and is about to let fly, he spots an open teammate out of the corner of his eye and wonders if he should pass instead. "It's like the opposite of tunnel vision," Kidd says. "You're always distracted."
Thate told Kidd it would take thousands of jumpers over several years to erase a lifetime of neglect. The pair worked together nearly every day, in season and out, overhauling Kidd's mechanics. Kidd straightened his posture and held the ball in front of his forehead instead of over his scalp. He heightened his arc and, of course, locked up his elbow. Thate froze videos of Kidd's shot and then compared them with Heat guard Mike Miller's, and eventually they did not look so different. Before Kidd returned to Dallas, he was a 33.4% three-point shooter. Since then, he has shot 39.5%, and almost two thirds of his field goal attempts this season were threes. Kidd sometimes wonders where he would be if he had ignored Thate's catcalls. "If I couldn't do this," he says, "I'd probably be done."
The average age of the Heat's starters is 28.6. The average age of the Mavericks' is 32.2. Their four leading scorers in the playoffs are all in their 30s. Players of this vintage can be granted more freedom, but they tend to require more maintenance. On road back-to-backs, teams typically gather for breakfast meetings. Carlisle doesn't convene the Mavs until 3:30 p.m., so no one needs a wake-up call. At home, Kidd and other veterans take twice-a-week trips to a nitrogen cooling chamber where they stand for three minutes in -170°C, with only their heads exposed, to stimulate blood flow. (Because the exercise is so brief, no one has suffered from hypothermia.)
The Mavs limited Kidd to the fewest minutes per game of his career this season, held him out of many postpractice scrimmages and buffered him with two reserves who can 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, and increased his reps as the playoffs approached, to steel for the grind. He has missed only five games in the past three seasons, none due to injury, and Dallas wanted to hold him out of a game against the Raptors in February because he had an inflamed foot, but Kidd insisted on playing.
The public has become understandably wary of athletes who defy age, but Kidd shows the predictable wear. He averaged a career low in points this season and the fewest assists (8.2) since he was a rookie. Even his three-point shooting slumped back to 34.0%. Barea, as swift as Kidd once was, overshadowed him at times.
The Mavericks gave Kidd two games off in early April, and he spent much of it working in the practice gym with assistant coach Tim Grgurich, reviewing notes from Thate. The Trail Blazers sagged off him in Game 1 of the first round, and he sank 6 of 10 threes. Entering the Finals, he was shooting 35.6% from deep during the playoffs.
The Mavericks are difficult to defend because they have so many perimeter options, beginning with Nowitzki, who can't really be guarded. Kidd is usually the one left alone. "Late in the shot clock, late in the game, he'll be open," says 76ers president Rod Thorn, who had been with Kidd in New Jersey.
Chandler likens Kidd to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis—"The older they get, the smarter they get, so they still outplay everybody," he says—but you see no histrionics from Kidd. A more appropriate cross-sport comparison is Greg Maddux, who pitched in the major leagues until he was 42, putting the ball wherever he wanted it, without a superfluous motion. Kidd is bound for the Hall of Fame, but he, too, wants to play into his 40s and help educate the next generation on the full job description of a point guard. "They'll learn how much easier the game is when they involve their teammates and understand when to score," Kidd says. "There's a science behind it all."
Before the Finals, Carlisle flashed back to a game in February 2010, when then Hawks head coach Mike Woodson stepped onto the court to instruct his team late in the fourth quarter, and Kidd opportunistically charged into him to draw a pivotal technical foul.
The Mavericks have a combined 118 seasons of NBA experience without a championship, and to survive the blast of the Heat, they will need to summon their collective cunning and deliver more moments of brilliance. They will face Miami, with all that failure as fuel, for their ultimate chance. They'd better lock it up.
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