Small ball allows Mavs to stand tall

Updated: April 13, 2004, 3:05 PM ET
By Dr. Jack Ramsay | Special to ESPN.com

Coach Don Nelson is at it again. He's experimenting in his basketball laboratory, mixing various lineup concoctions together to see which one performs best as an antidote for more powerful NBA opponents. Right now, Nellie is back to playing "small ball" -- a tactic he has used in the past with Milwaukee and Golden State.

Nelson plays without a center -- mainly because he has none -- and sends out two forwards -- Dirk Nowitzki and Antoine Walker -- and three perimeter players -- Steve Nash, Michael Finley and rookie Marquis Daniels -- to force his opponents into unconventional matchups. He doesn't especially care about his team being undersized because he's going to play some kind of zone defense anyway. And even there, he won't use a standard, predictable zone. Nellie's zone will take on a lot of different shapes, then sometimes becoming a switching man-to-man ... and sometimes he'll even play straight man-to-man and double-team post players who get the ball in the basket area.

There are three reasons why Nellie does this. First, because he loves to tinker with his personnel; second, because he prides himself on being able to find unconventional ways to overcome obstacles; and third, because he wants to win.

The result of all of his trial and error maneuverings is another 50-win season and a chance for Nelson to win his first championship ring. At present, the Mavs are tied with Memphis for fifth place in the Western Conference going into Tuesday's home game with the Grizzlies. A win in that game would probably give the Mavs a first-round playoff matchup with the Lakers; a loss would drop them into a probable matchup with Sacramento. Nellie would prefer the latter.

The Diagnosis

Small ball is the Mavs' best chance to win. Shawn Bradley doesn't have enough "game" to play center on a contending team. Nelson's second option, 6-foot-8 Danny Fortson, is a tough rebounder, but lacks the size to battle other bigs in the West. A three-forward lineup of Walker, Nowitzki and Antawn Jamison doesn't defend well enough to contain any of the front-line positions.

Small ball actually is the most logical lineup that Nellie can employ if he hopes to advance in the playoffs. It provides the team with its highest potential to score and it makes opponents change their style of play. The Mavs need to outscore opponents in an uptempo game. They need to push the ball upcourt and create open shots at the perimeter and drives to the hoop. They are very good at that style, and that style creates a disruptive environment for their opponents -- who have to be thinking of transition defense even while they execute their offense.

Nash is perfect for this game plan. He is extremely quick in advancing the ball on the dribble. He has great court vision and finds open teammates in transition. He's dangerous from 3-point land and finishes at the basket with an array of off-balance but under-control shots.

Nowitzki is also excellent on the run from either deep or in close, and Walker passes well in the open court and finishes consistently at the hoop -- although he's an erratic perimeter shooter. Finley is a great clutch shooter from almost anywhere on the court, and Daniels has been a big surprise with his skill and maturity.

Steve Nash
The Mavericks are at their best when they're running and the ball is in Steve Nash's hands.
Off the bench, Nellie goes with Jamison, who's been great in a sixth-man role, and another rookie, Josh Howard, who, like Daniels, plays more like a veteran than a rookie. Eduardo Najera is also available for his toughness and hustle in the front-line rotation; and Travis Best gives the team veteran leadership in the backcourt.

The Mavs lead the league in points scored at 105.3 per game. They rank second to Orlando for points allowed at 101.9. Nash said it best: "We need to play our best offense to score a lot of points to win. We just need to be adequate on defense."

The Cure

The Mavs aren't going to be an easy out in the playoffs against any team, but their chances of advancing are best against Sacramento. That matchup pairs two teams that place a high priority on offense and a quick-paced offensive tempo. It will be a shooter's delight with the point totals over the 100 level for both teams. Nelson is hoping for that matchup.

The Mavs' chances for success diminish against the other probable opponent -- the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone are unmatched against any of Nellie's defensive ploys and Kobe Bryant will operate with freedom.

Small ball. It's been good enough to get Nellie's team into the playoffs -- but it's unlikely to get him beyond the first round.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Legendary coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay served as lead game analyst for The NBA on ESPN Radio. He also contributed to ESPN.com and ESPN The Mag.

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