Nov. 13, 2002
By Eddie Sefko
Dallas Morning News
CLEVELAND, Ohio - NBA players have a way of tuning out coaches. Not all the time. Just at particularly tedious points in the season, when they selectively let barked-out instructions go in one ear and out the other.
That's when they rely on each other. Players exerting their will can have a different influence. Sometimes, it's a more positive kind of pressure.
Steve Nash is proof that players can be every bit as good as coaches at getting teammates to stop a bad trend. Or stop a good power forward. Monday's game against Portland was a vivid example of the Mavericks' point guard grabbing the team by the collective scruff of the neck and shaking it out of doldrums that threatened its season-opening winning streak.
"Everything in the NBA is about timing," Avery Johnson said Tuesday. "It never works when all a coach does is say things. And it never works when a player does it all the time. You have to pick your spots. And Steve has stepped up. He spoke up in a timeout and it rallied us. And he did it at a time when I think he had zero points and one assist.
"That was encouraging to see. It was a growth spurt for him."
They say leaders are born, not made. But in basketball, a certain level of comfort must be reached before anybody can start nudging a team in the right direction. As the Mavericks try to run their record to 8-0 Wednesday night against Cleveland, Nash said he's cognizant of trying to be a leader - vocally, as well as by example.
"There's a level of respect," Nash said. "It's just a feeling. I've always been willing to speak my mind, but I'm gaining more confidence in that area, certainly.
"Working through things together as teammates is important. Coaches might have other problems on their mind. Players can relate to each other."
And they respond to those who have their respect.
"There's a sanctity in the huddle and in the locker room," coach Don Nelson said. "I don't want to over-tell what's going on in there. That's kind of a private area. But the leadership came out [Monday]. I encourage those things to happen. And it happened in just the right way."
Last season, the Mavericks brought in Tim Hardaway to try to manufacture a leadership gene that would grow within the team. It didn't work. This season, it seems to have happened naturally.
"Look at what the Nets are going through right now, trying to figure out who they are," owner Mark Cuban said. "That's what happened to us last year. Fin [Michael Finley] and Nash realize that and are working hard to make leadership part of their package."
These are the things that add up over the course of the season. And as the Mavericks begin a difficult three-game, four-night trip, they are heading on the road with a bull's-eye on their back.
"None of them are going to be easy," Nelson said. "And let's face it, everybody's going to draw a circle around our team now because we're the hottest team in the league. And they'd like to knock us off. We'd all like it to keep going because it's more fun to win than to lose."
Said Johnson: "This will be a good test. But we're not a team that shies away from road games. Everybody is aiming for us."
That's what happens when a team gets off to a 7-0 start and is blessed with strong leadership at the top.
And at the point, too.