“We shall fight on the beaches, We shall fight on the landing grounds, We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, We shall fight in the hills; We shall never surrender…” — Winston Churchill
It was appropriate that Nellie got his 1,332nd NBA coaching win — tying him with Lenny Wilkens for the most wins in league history — in this game. A game that featured a short-handed team of scrappy underdogs, playing for nothing but him, on the road against a superstar-led playoff team, fighting for its very life. A game which required Nellie to play his patented small-ball right from the very tip. A game which required every ounce of his creativity and savvy right down to the final seconds.
In short, a game that no NBA coach in history was likely to have won, save Don Nelson.
If Nellie had matched up conventionally in this game, as the legion of small-minded and convention-bound Bay Area scribes led by Tim Kawakami and Adam Lauridsen have been bleating for since time immemorial — if he had played Turiaf/Hunter on the 7′-foot tall Bargnani, and Tolliver/Turiaf on Chris Bosh, and Corey Maggette at small forward — the Warriors would have gotten slaughtered. Slaughtered. Bargnani makes his living dragging conventional centers out of the lane (a Don Nelson invention, of course). And matching up Tolliver on Bosh would have been simply conceding the most important matchup in this game.
If there is a hallmark to Don Nelson’s coaching, to his “system” as some would have it, it is this: never concede a matchup. NEVER. If the other team has a superstar that simply cannot be guarded, then Don Nelson will make sure to match him with a player that he himself cannot guard on the other end. And that is just what Nellie did in this game by starting Corey Maggette at power forward. Chris Bosh can’t be guarded? Well neither can Corey Maggette. Chris Bosh goes for 42? Corey Maggette goes for 31. Big deal. Let’s see what the rest of your team can do.
Here’s what the rest of Toronto did: Andrea Bargnani shot 7-23 trying to force the action inside, which is NOT his game. Toronto’s guards were taken completely out of their rhythm, because their front-line was a black hole: Bargnani and Bosh combined for 2 assists. The Warriors packed the paint, but Toronto’s shooters were no match for the Warriors’. Game, Set, Match, Don Nelson.
We’ve seen it before: Maggette on Aldridge. Harrington on Dampier and Yao. Jackson on Nowitzki. I can’t guard you? Well, you can’t guard me.
But it’s deeper, if you really think about it, than just small ball. Its Dirk Nowitzki on Malone, Duncan and Garnett. Its Monta Ellis on Brandon Roy and Kobe Bryant. It’s the quick three. The first available shot. The fast break after a made basket. The point forward. The point guard who can drop 30. The power forward who shoots threes. Five shooters on the floor.
I can’t guard you? Well, you can’t guard me. Now lets play some basketball.
If Don Nelson has a “system,” it is this: Winning. Don Nelson finds a way, any way, to win basketball games. You have big men and he has little, he will beat you. You have superstars, and he has D-Leaguers, he will beat you. No one in NBA history has ever found more ways to win, or had more courage to actually go ahead and do it, when playoff glory and careers were on the line. That is Don Nelson’s greatness.
But it starts and ends with this: Don Nelson wins because, like Winston Churchill, he never surrenders.
The end of the game: The Warriors’ near collapse can be ascribed to many factors. A rookie point guard. A lack of a go-to player. A center who can’t shoot free throws. An excess of D-leaguers who can’t run the plays yet (Reggie Williams struggled).
And then there’s the important reasons: First of all, fatigue. Once again, the Warriors were running with seven players, on the road. And Curry is playing on two flat tires. Hit the wall? Curry’s hit it as many times as Wile E. Coyote.
But the most important reason I think is this: when the Warriors got up 16 mid-fourth quarter they started trying to run clock. This was not a mistake, exactly, it was the sound thing to do. But it completely took them out of their game, and they couldn’t get it back.
The final 10 seconds: Fitting that it seemed to last as long as Nellie’s whole career, isn’t it? I think Nellie went early to the fouling strategy because he couldn’t trust his young D-leaguers to execute on defense.
Stephen Curry: Another incredible performance from a kid who has next to nothing in the tank. 2 rebounds short of a triple-double? Engineering a win on the road against a desperate playoff team, with a short-handed team of D-leaguers and absolutely no go-to men?
I have friends — rabid, knowledgeable basketball fans — who are still comparing Curry to Mike Bibby. It just makes me want to laugh. Why can’t they see the greatness that is right in front of their faces?
The highlight sequence: at 6:10 of the first quarter, Curry nails a three, blocks Calderon on the defensive end, and slings a touchdown pass to Reggie Williams.
Just a thought: Which made a greater impression on you, Curry choking the first two free throws, or icing the last two?
One other fitting thing about this game: if the wins record is what it takes to get Don Nelson in the Hall of Fame, it’s perfect that Stephen Curry is getting it for him. One Hall of Famer is nearing the end; another is just beginning.
Corey Maggette: As has been his wont throughout this season, Maggette shouldered the nightmare assignment on defense, took the pounding, and then delivered on the other end. A class act. And a hell of a basketball player.
He has his weaknesses. A propensity for sick turnovers at sick moments. But he has greatness in him as well. Was there any doubt he would hit his last two free throws? He had no doubt, as he shushed the stands before he even shot them.
Signature moment: After Bargnani steam-rolled him for a dunk, Maggette looked questioningly to Nelson with his arms outstretched. What to do? Nellie answered with a vigorous hand signal: RUN.
Anthony Morrow: Nice to see him hitting shots again. Its one of the mysteries of this season that he and CJ Watson never seem to be hitting in the same game.
His greatest contribution, however, may have come on the boards. Signature moment: at 9:00 of the fourth quarter, Morrow takes a board away from Bosh. Now why couldn’t Brandon Wright ever do that?
Reggie Williams: All of a sudden he’s struggling with his shot. It’s a good thing for him this happened after he got his contract.
He’s a heck of a ballhandler, though, who can only get better. 6 assists against 0 turnovers? I see special things ahead for Reggie, if Nellie sticks.
Rony Turiaf: We saw a bit of everything from Turiaf in this game, from good to bad to disastrous. But two plays stand out for me. The defense on Bosh at :40 of the fourth quarter. And the quick challenge of Bosh’s last shot.
That’s Rony Turiaf.