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Three months later, with the Warriors listing at 14-31, Nelson stepped down. "It's time for me to change and time for the Warriors to change," he said at the time. "I don't blame anybody but myself ... "
The coach who came back to the Warriors, while certainly older, appears wiser than the one who engaged in mutual-assured destruction with Webber. Nelson has tamed himself, recognizing that most NBA players today blanche at the hard-driving coaching style he once favored. In November, after Golden State surrendered 140 points in a loss to Denver, he walked into the locker room and, instead of scolding his men, simply brought them together in a huddle. "You're tired, I'm tired," he said. "Let's go home." The next night, they thrashed Utah 91-78.
After leaving Golden State, Webber played for Washington, Sacramento, and Philadelphia, wearing out his welcome in each city. Two months ago, 13 years removed from Golden State, he signed with Detroit; acting the gracious newcomer, he offered to fill whatever role his new coach asks of him. "Chris Webber has matured nicely," says Nelson, who reconciled with the player some years ago. He hawks up another brown glob and smiles.
"And Coach Nelson has matured nicely."
Don Nelson looks deflated. Golden State trails the Los Angeles Lakers by 16 points with five minutes remaining in the first half. The Warriors, coming off a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers a night earlier, run as if fresh tar coats the court, their leg strength sapped by back-to-back games. About half the 20,000 people jamming the Oracle want the Lakers to win, judging from the cheers that boom when L.A. hits a three-pointer. Nelson shakes his head and calls timeout.
The Warriors plod to the sideline and slump down in their chairs. Peering at the floor, Nelson lets the break pass in silence, perhaps because he realizes fatigue can't be coached out of players. Or at least not on this afternoon in late February.
The coach turns nominally more voluble 90 minutes later while talking with reporters after what turns out to be a 17-point loss. "I don't have a lot to offer," he says before any of them asks a question. "You saw the mess out there." He runs down the lowlights of an afternoon he alternately describes as "a nightmare game" and "a letdown game."
"But anyway," he says, "those things happen, and you have to move on."
Three days later, Nelson spoke like a man unable to heed his own advice after a 30-point drubbing in Chicago, Golden State's fourth loss in a row. He delivered an appraisal of the squad's postseason chances to reporters that sounded positively Appomattox. "I thought I could get this team in the playoffs and it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to do it. I feel like I've failed, really, in a lot of ways ... "
Two more road defeats followed, including one to Washington in which Nelson received a technical foul for protesting a referee's call at game's end. (Observers claimed he called the ref "a fucking idiot," an accusation Nelson denied.) His eruption handed the Wizards an extra free throw with no time left on the clock. Former Warriors guard Gilbert Arenas drained the shot, lifting Washington to a one-point win.
The two episodes, if divergent in tone and content, illumined Nelson's disdain for losing. His impatience represents both blessing and curse: It keeps him forever thinking of new plays, hunting for fresh talent. It also can provoke premature eulogies, as occurred after the Chicago loss. Then as now, the Warriors still lurk within striking distance of the final playoff slot in the Western Conference.
With his surrender speech, Nelson may have intended to spur his team, lower public expectations, or both. During nearly three decades as a coach, he has observed the forbearance of fans erode, with every franchise under pressure to win now or else. Gone are the days of the five-year plan, when teams mapped out a long-range rebuilding effort. Every new season dawns with demands for a championship.
Nelson's motives aside, however, perhaps the most compelling aspect of his capitulation in Chicago and subsequent flameout in Washington was the reaction of the Warriors. The day after losing to the Wizards, Golden State dismantled Detroit by 18 points, then returned home and pounded Denver two nights later. Visions of the playoffs flickered anew.
The Detroit game marked Baron Davis' return from an injury, inspiring hope among the Warriors that they can make a late-season surge. But as vital as Davis remains to those ambitions, the victory also revealed that, under Nelson, the Warriors are finally something more than simply Davis, Richardson, and a bunch of elbow-phobes.
Andris Biedrins amassed 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Pistons. Last year, the 20-year-old center languished behind the hard-working but anvil-footed Adonal Foyle. De-benched by Nelson, Biedrins ranks near the league lead in field-goal accuracy as he averages 10 points and 10 rebounds a game. Meanwhile, Matt Barnes, who chipped in eight points against Detroit, has morphed from career nomad to vital role player. The forward had played for four teams in three years by the time he entered Golden State's training camp last summer. Nelson spotted him the first day and uttered those six little words that mean so much to a free agent: "We need a guy like you."