April 29, 2001

Nelson made Nash the anti-Stockton, and Mavs love results

April 28, 2001

By Brad Townsend, Staff Writer
Dallas Morning News

Mavericks point guard Steve Nash rolls his eyes. Utah counterpart John Stockton winces. They are trying to be polite, but their body languages scream otherwise.

"Please don't do it. Don't compare us again."

For Stockton, it's a matter of principle. His typically impeccable but understated play is a major reason Utah leads Dallas 2-0 in this best-of-five, first-round playoff series. Stockton and the Jazz didn't get where they are by being drawn into comparisons.

"For me to stop and analyze someone on the other team takes away from my team," Stockton says.

Now consider Nash's perspective. He seems embarrassed to be mentioned in the same sentence with the NBA's all-time assist and steals leader.

Nash says "skin tone" is the only reason media and fans compare he and Stockton. He worries that Stockton might be "insulted." Obviously, the last thing the Mavericks need is a more motivated Stockton.

"He's as good as anybody," Nash says. "When you look at his playoff experience, comparing us is comical."

Truth is, there was a time not long ago when Nash strove to pour himself into the Stockton mold. It might surprise Mavericks fans that coach Don Nelson stepped in and steered Nash to a different path.

In reality, Nash's grudging willingness to play less like Stockton is a primary reason the Mavericks won 53 games this season.

And if this makes any sense, the less the 27-year-old Nash mirrors his 39-year-old, future Hall of Fame counterpart on Saturday, the better Dallas' chances of getting back in this series.

"In our offense, I'm asked to be a lot more aggressive offensively," Nash says. "I'm expected to score more."

So far, Nash is one of the few Mavericks who has done his part in this series. He is averaging 20 points and 6.5 assists. He has shot 50 percent from the field and made 13 of 14 free throws.

But if Dirk Nowitzki and Juwan Howard continue to shoot 32 percent and 42 percent, respectively, Nash might need to play more selfishly on offense, a decidedly un-Stockton-like trait. Shoot more? Until late last season, Nash would have squirmed at such a suggestion. Internally, perhaps he still does. But a tongue-lashing from Nelson in March 2000, followed by a brief benching, got the message across.

Actually, Nelson was equally concerned about Nowitzki's play but believed Nowitzki was too young for harsh appraisal.

"Maybe I was a little too hard on (Nash), but he needed to get the point," Nelson says. "He needed to listen to me because I needed him to play a certain way, and he wasn't doing it.

"He wanted to be John Stockton Jr., and he was failing. He was too unselfish, and I needed a scorer. I asked him lots of times, and he just kept playing his own way. It was a tough moment for him and for me, very uncomfortable, but it needed to be done."

Who could blame Nash for resisting? For most of his college and pro career, he had been compared to Stockton. Naturally so.

Both grew up in the Pacific Northwest: Stockton in Spokane, Wash., Nash in Victoria, British Columbia. Both played at West Coast Conference colleges: Stockton at Gonzaga, Nash at Santa Clara.

Nash became the fourth player to lead the WCC in scoring and assists in the same season, a feat first accomplished by Stockton. Ironically, Nash achieved his career high of 40 points against Gonzaga.

For crying out loud, Nash's middle name (and his father's first name) is John.

"He was a terrific player in college, and he's become a terrific player in the NBA," Stockton says. Don't ask Stockton to be more specific, nothing personal.

"I don't want to get into that," he says. "Obviously, he's done very well."

Obviously, painfully so for the Mavericks, Stockton's mental and physical approaches are as effective as ever after 17 seasons.

He has averaged 14.5 points and 13.5 assists in this series. He has only five turnovers to Nash's nine. Wear and tear? Stockton has averaged 39.5 minutes this series - more than 10 minutes above his season average.

"He looks the same to me," says Mavericks guard Vernon Maxwell, a veteran who has had his share of battles with Stockton. "He knows how to win. It's an attitude. That's the way he plays. That's the way he goes about his business."

While the Mavericks look to Nash on Saturday for offense first and ball distribution second, they will try to prevent Stockton from doing what he does best.

Look for more of the Dallas half-court trap that was effective late in Game 2. Nash and Michael Finley each have tried to guard Stockton, with little success. The trap prevents Stockton from starting and dictating every Jazz possession.

"He makes the players around him better," Howard says. "We tried our best [in Game 2] as far as keeping the ball out of his hands."

Stockton remains a point guard to be marveled, but in his Mavericks counterpart's case, not entirely emulated.

Sure, Nelson wishes the often-injured Nash were as durable as Stockton. He is pleased that Nash has some of Stockton's hard-nosed and creative traits.

But the coach is more interested in Nash continuing to be the point guard the Mavericks need him to be.

"Had he been with a different organization, he might be more like Stockton," Nelson says. "I'm glad I got my way, though."

Dallas Morning News Staff writers Jodie Valade and Marc Stein contributed to this report.

POINT-BY-POINT
StocktonNash
39Age27
6-1, 175Size6-3, 195
Gonzaga ('84)CollegeSanta Clara ('96)
No. 12JerseyNo. 13
14,503Career asts1,402
14.5Series ppg.20.0
13.5Series apg.6.5
SupercutsHairstyleRoll out of bed
HoustonMiddle nameJohn