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Don Nelson is about to detonate. He has called timeout with three minutes left in overtime of a game against Memphis. Seconds earlier, Grizzlies guard Mike Miller stroked his eighth three-pointer of the contest, drawing a communal groan from the 17,000 fans inside Oracle Arena. Happy to hoist shots from anywhere outside the team bus, the gangly Miller has dodged Golden State defenders all night long to score 42 points.
The coach waits for his players to jog off the court. Once they sit down, he drops into a chair facing them and leans forward, pausing a beat as though fighting the urge to light himself on fire.
"Jesus Christ! What the fuck was that?" Nelson yells, his face contorted into a cubist jumble, wide forehead layered over W.C. Fields nose and billowing jowls. He cusses out his men for 45 seconds while exhorting them to smother Miller, repeating at higher volume a message from preceding timeouts. They listen, heads bowed and mouths cinched.
At first, Nelson's edict yields no better results than if he had ranted in Farsi. After Golden State ties the score at 108, Memphis counterattacks. Miller cuts toward the top of the three-point arc, shaking loose of his defender for an instant. A teammate passes to him and, one wrist flick later, Nelson's head drops as the ball ripples the net.
But that basket induces the final communal groan of the night. Over the game's last two minutes, the Warriors harass Miller with multiple players, their arms wind-milling to deny him a clear glimpse of the basket. He manages only one more shot; it caroms off the rim. The Memphis offense sputters while Golden State hits a couple of jump shots and free throws, easing ahead to win by three. The home team leaves the court to a roar that belies the modest feat of a victory in late February over the league's worst club.
Nelson shuffles into his post-game press conference clutching a can of Bud Light. The apoplexy that bloated his features a short time ago has seeped out. He looks and sounds tired, his eyes fixed downward, his voice a scratchy, nasal monotone that bears the flatness of the western Illinois plains where he grew up.
He reviews the game with vintage Nelsonian candor. Miller "would love to play us every night." Warriors guard Monta Ellis nailed four crucial shots in overtime, but earlier "he missed three lay-ups, as you recall." Sarunas Jasikevicius, following "two poor days of practice," acted "too casual" on the court in missing all three of his shots. "He's probably angry at me," Nelson says of Jasikevicius, who rode the bench nearly the entire game. "We need to sit down and have a little chat. I'm disappointed in him ... "
Nelson's bluntness sets him apart from most pro coaches, a secretive species apt to hedge when asked about their favorite cheese, let alone the play of their team. Given the nature of NBA players often described as sensitive, code for all must kneel before me his public criticism would seem a form of career suicide, except that, to them, it's old news.
"Everything you hear, we've already heard it," Stephen Jackson says. "He tells guys where things are at, so there's no guessing."
Jackson stands in the Warriors locker room, meltwater trickling down his legs from the ice packs wrapped around his knees. The guard recorded 26 points, 12 assists, and, in the waning seconds, a hand slap from Nelson. "Man, you never see a coach give "five' to his guys, and he does it all the time," Jackson says. "That's what I love about him. If you screw up, he's going to tell you he doesn't sugarcoat anything. But he's the first guy to congratulate you when you play well."
Across the room, Al Harrington seconds the love, on a night he went from wrist slap to palm slap. Nelson yanked him after he turned the ball over in the first quarter, barking at the starting forward as he walked to the bench. But Harrington soon returned to the floor and wound up scoring 22 points, including a jumper late in overtime that clinched the win. "Without a doubt," he says, "Don Nelson has the purest heart of any coach I've ever played for. He's a coach that wants you to do well."
Jackson and Harrington joined Golden State in January, along with Jasikevicius and Josh Powell. The foursome arrived from Indiana in a trade that shipped Mike Dunleavy, Todd Murphy, Ike Diogu, and Keith McLeod to the Pacers. The deal, aside from providing Nelson with athletes suited to his tommy-gun brand of basketball, freed him of twin millstones whose playing style befits the WNBA.
Unlike his predecessor Mike Montgomery, Nelson regarded Dunleavy and Murphy as starters in salary only, demoting them to bench jockeys early this season. Before Nelson's arrival, Warriors management, and Mullin in particular, judged the two forwards crucial to the team's long-term prospects. The new coach considered them a pair of elbow-phobes loath to battle opposing big men.
"Our future was invested in two guys who would be the seventh or eighth guy on a really good team," Nelson says of Dunleavy and Murphy, who will sponge up north of $40 million apiece through spring 2011. "If you're making $8 million or $10 million a year and you're not producing, well, something has to change."