Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson and Warriors coach Don Nelson took part in some mental jousting throughout Game 1 on Sunday night.
"It's definitely going to be a good chess match," Dallas guard Devin Harris said. "Teacher vs. pupil. There are a lot of similarities between the two."
Round 1 went to Nelson.
His schematics had Johnson countering all game, to the point where Johnson went pretty much just seven deep, negating Dallas' depth.
The chess match began before the opening tip. Johnson -- after talking up centers Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, and the Mavericks' overall size advantage -- started a smaller lineup, choosing to try to keep up with Nelson's small ball.
Johnson started power forward Dirk Nowitzki at center and Devean George at power forward. Dallas opened with a 9-4 run over the first four minutes.
"Every time we play them, our (centers) just could not keep up," Johnson said. "They start two point guards, two (shooting guards) and a (small forward). They put us in a really big bind, and we just haven't been able to make them pay on the offensive end when we came down the floor."
Nelson said he wasn't surprised to see Dallas start small.
After falling behind early, he also countered Johnson's version of small ball with his bigger small lineup, replacing Monta Ellis with forward Matt Barnes.
The Warriors then used their defense to take control of the game. The length and athleticism of Barnes and Stephen Jackson bottled up Nowitzki, and the Warriors took a 23-17 lead into the second quarter after scoring nine fast-break points and forcing the Mavericks into 28.6 percent shooting.
Even more surprising, the Warriors outrebounded the Mavericks 19-10 in the first quarter.
Johnson responded with Diop, who had an immediate impact on the game defensively by changing shots and taking up space in the middle. Suddenly, the Warriors' fast break slowed, and Dallas took over the glass. The Mavericks outscored the Warriors 21-15 in the second quarter and took a 34-29 rebounding advantage into the locker room.
The score was a mere 38-38 at the break, and both teams combined to shoot just 29-for-93 (31.1 percent) and commit 16 turnovers.
Though ugly, it was an intense first half, largely because of the strategizing.
Nothing less was expected from these two.
Johnson, who learned under Nelson as an assistant coach for the Mavericks, has proven in his short career on the bench that he's among the game's best. What's more, he's got the depth on his roster to be creative (i.e., his use of diminutive guards Harris and Jason Terry together against the slower San Antonio Spurs in last season's second round, and his decision to play Diop against the faster Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.).
With that said, Nelson is a mastermind at finding and milking advantages, getting the most out of what he has. He's been doing it for years, and his experience figures to give him a decisive edge.
"This is where Nellie's in his element," said Donnie Nelson, who is the Mavericks' president of basketball operations and general manager, and Don Nelson's son. "When his back's against the wall, when he's got to play at a disadvantage -- those are the times when he pulls curves out and surprises you. Our hope and a prayer is that those surprises won't be surprising."
The two went at it Sunday, master v. protégé. Both coaches shuffled players in and out. Both coaches abandoned their usual starting centers (Dampier and the Warriors' Andris Biedrins combined for just 10 minutes, 12 seconds).
But the difference Sunday, was how each coach handled the other's star player.
Johnson tried to contain Baron Davis with his bigger perimeter players, such as George and Greg Buckner.
Nelson primarily went with his longer, athletic wing players on Nowitzki -- such as Jackson, Barnes and Mickael Pietrus -- and had his backcourt players creep in and attempt to strip the ball away.
Nelson's scheme worked against Nowitzki, who never got into a rhythm and finished with just 14 points on 4-for-16 shooting.
Johnson's plan at stopping Davis failed miserably. Davis scored 19 points in the third quarter and finished with 33 and eight assists.
The best part? This was only Game 1. Now the chess gets serious.
"They're going to be ready (for Game 2)," Barnes said. "I guarantee Avery is going to have them ready."
Contact Marcus Thompson II at email@example.com.