The 2006-07 Golden State Warriors made NBA history in the first round of the NBA Playoffs when they became the first No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seeded team in a best-of-seven format in the Dallas Mavericks. As incredible and unlikely of an accomplishment that was, after the Warriors had already made a 16-5 run to close the season and make the postseason the last day of the season, the victory was far sweeter than just becoming another league “first.”
The series was entangled with storylines between coaches and players that all added to the playoff clash between the Western Conference’s top and bottom seeds in 2007. Take a look through the the history that connected these two teams that culminated in one of the most memorable playoff series in Warriors franchise history.
Opposite Sides of the Ball
From their personality to their styles of play, the 2006-07 Warriors and Mavericks were two teams who were polar opposites of each other.
“The Warriors were an emotional group, bordering on volatile,” wrote Lee Jenkins for the New York Times in 2007. “Their victories are accompanied by raucous celebrations. Their defeats are marred by meltdowns. By comparison, the Mavericks looked passionless.”
As Dub Nation is well aware, the Warriors’ “run-and-gun” style originated under Head Coach Don Nelson. The Golden State team led by Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson andJason Richardson did just that as they continuously pushed the ball up the court, echoing the style of the Run TMC teams in the early 1990s, also coached by Nelson.
On the other side of the court in the series was a lengthier team with a more calculated offense that went through Dirk Nowitzki, that season’s Most Valuable Player. The German-born, seven-foot tall forward posted 24.6 points and 8.9 rebounds through the 2006-07 season as he proved to be a matchup nightmare for most teams.
“They had the better team, there’s no question about that,” said Nelson in a recent interview with the Warriors.
Despite the challenges that came with an experienced and sizable team like the Mavericks, the Warriors swept them 3-0 in their regular season series.
“We would always play those guys tough,” Richardson said while talking with Warriors television broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald. “We won a few times or we played them right down to the wire.”
How could the Warriors compete against one of the top teams in the NBA that season?
“He knew every thing about every player,” said Ellis recently. And that was because Nelson had history with Dallas.
Nelson vs. Mavericks
Nelson first coached the Golden State Warriors from 1988-1995 where he amassed 277 wins and a 51.5 winning percentage. His coaching success led him to eventually become Head Coach and General Manager of the Dallas Mavericks in 1997. Nelson took the Mavericks from a team that had not reached a .500 season since the 1989-90 campaign into a constant presence in the NBA Playoffs.
One reason for that success during Nelson’s tenure and beyond: finding the future Naismith Hall of Famer Nowitzki and orchestrating a three-team trade to acquire his draft rights.
In that same trade, Nelson also acquired eventual Hall of Famer Steve Nash who remained with the team for six seasons.
After missing the playoffs the first two seasons of Nelson’s tenure, Dallas made it into the playoffs in each of the next four years, and advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2003.
It was also during this time, in January of 2000, that Mark Cuban purchased the franchise.
Nelson and Cuban would go on to clash for the next several years. Despite the team’s success on the court, a $7 million lawsuit between the team’s coach and owner would last seven years.
Nelson ultimately stepped down as coach towards the end of the 2004-05 season and named his assistant Avery Johnson the team’s new head coach. At the conclusion of the season, he also removed himself from the role of General Manager.
“He had some success there, he helped build that team to what it was, and things didn’t end well,” said Matt Barnes, a key reserve for the We Believe squad. “I think there was always a chip on his shoulder.”
More History Between the Two Teams
Nelson was not the only person to have been with both the Warriors and Mavericks. Center Eric Damiper played seven seasons with Golden State, including a 2003-04 campaign in which he posted 12.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
After that big season, Dampier opted out of his contract with the Warriors to become a free agent. A deal was struck where the Dubs would complete a sign-and-trade with the center that landed him in Dallas with Nelson. Dampier would play the next six seasons in Dallas.
Dallas also opted to make a controversial decision in the Warriors’ penultimate game of the season on Apr. 17, 2007 when Johnson opted to sit starters Nowitzki, Dampier, Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse, in essence letting the Warriors win and indicating that Golden State was their preferred first round playoff opponent — the Clippers were battling with the Warriors for the final playoff spot right up until the last day of the season.
The Dubs won the game 111-82. That victory, combined with their ensuing win in Portland the following night in the regular season finale, were key in capturing the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 13 years.
That also set up the first round playoff matchup between the Warriors and the Mavericks.
“He Knew All Their Moves”
Dallas finished with season with a league-best 67-15 record while the Warriors’ last two wins put them at 42-40. To most people, the matchup looked one-sided.
The Dubs believed in themselves though.
“We knew we had a chance to advance to the next round,” said Ellis, “and the reason was we knew Don Nelson had coached them guys for a while.”
Richardson expanded on Nelson’s past relationship with the team, saying “he basically raised Dirk. He knew all their players, he knew all their moves.”
As advantageous as it was for Nelson to have had the experience coaching Dallas, the Warriors were gaining more than just insights on the Mavericks from their coach. He was fueling their competitive fire.
“There was something about Nellie, he looked different at the beginning of that series,” said Jackson in a recent interview. “The motivation to win for Coach Nelson was everything. We knew how important this series was to him.”
Between the emotional weight, the feuds, and the supposed difference in skill levels between the teams, the Dubs faced a daunting task in their first round matchup against the Mavericks.
That did not phase the We Believe Warriors.
Said Barnes: “That was the one thing about our team was that we feared nobody. We knew who we were and where we stood, but we also knew the collective talent and heart we had in that locker room.”
“We knew that as good as they were, as talented as Dirk was - obviously he won MVP that season - we just knew we had more dogs and we knew that we could beat up on their superstar.”
The Blueprint for Success
From the opening tip of the first round series, it was clear that Nelson and the Warriors had put a plan in place that was different from other teams in the NBA who struggled to stop Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Nowitzki’s size rendered guarding him with most guards and forwards ineffective. And though seven feet tall, Nowitzki was never a standard “big” as he moved well with the ball and could shoot from distance over players, making it difficult for a traditional center to defend him.
But the We Believe Warriors were unique in that the roster featured a number of lengthy and physically dominant forwards. Jason Richardson and Matt Barnes were taking turns, as Warriors Hall of Famer and then-General Manager Chris Mullin called it in an interview, “playing him right and tight.”
“Every time he turned there was someone there,” he added.
But no Warriors was on Nowitzki more than the Dub’s top defender in Jackson. That was the key to Nelson’s plan as the six-foot-eight-inch forward played physical defense all series long on Nowtizki, disrupting his game and therefore the Mavericks’ entire offense.
“I’ve always played defense and taken pride in it,” said Jackson, “but I can’t take credit for that. I got to give it to Don Nelson and (then assistant coach) Larry Riley for the preparation… Knowing what (Nowitzki) liked to do, knowing his moves, knowing he liked to go left from Don Nelson coaching him all those years.”
But Nelson’s plan would not work without Jackson’s willingness to commit to it either. Good thing the Dub’s co-captain liked a challenge.
“First of all, (Jackson) wanted to guard (Nowtizki),” said Nelson. “Jack always wanted to guard the toughest guy… he’s one of the few guys who could get under his skin and make it tough on Dirk.”
Barnes elaborated on the Warriors’ series-long plan, saying “we made that switch having Jack guard Dirk, having me guard Dirk. And then really Nellie knowing Dirk’s game in and out… He told us all of his moves... So we had the blueprint on how that team was built and run, and it ran through Dirk, so we knew that we were able to attack Dirk on both ends and really try to bully him, that we would have some success.”
It was not just Xs and Os that went into preparation for the series, but it was psychological as well, according to Barnes.
“The fact that a team won 67 games — the most in the NBA that season — you have the league MVP, but you’re adjusting your lineup to an eighth seeded team that lucked-out and got into the playoffs, so the first part of the mental war was won right there.”
Mullin said the decision for Dallas to match the Warriors’ small, speedy lineup or stick with their size was a critical one.
“Then you have to decide: do you match up small with our lineup — which we were comfortable with, we had been doing it all year and you’re not comfortable doing that — or do you stick to your conventional big lineup?”
Should Dallas had chosen to stick with their larger, more traditional lineup, Mullin felt the Warriors had a back-up plan because “we’ve got Al Harrington now at the five looking at wide-open threes” when larger, slower forwards were on the court and not guarding the power forward at the three-point line.
But the decision was clear: Johnson and the Dallas Mavericks were going to try and beat the Warriors in the first round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs by going small with the Dubs.
Former Dub Dampier was the typical starting center for the Mavericks. He started in 73 of his 76 games that year and averaged 7.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks across 25 minutes per game in the regular season. The Dubs’ plan to speed up the game with small ball forced Johnson to limit Dampier to just 38 total minutes through the series.
Barnes said that, again, was a part of Nelson’s psychological strategy.
“Then Avery Johnson went small to match us, we knew we had it because we knew that we could bully Dirk,” he said. “We knew the second Avery Johnson went small, he was doubting what got them there, and any time you have doubt in what gets you 60 or 70 wins, there’s a problem.”
As Dub Nation remembers well, the Warriors advanced to the next round after defeating the Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the series. It was a result few pundits and basketball fans expected as the upstart Dubs were, even by Nelson’s admission, “a team that didn’t have much of a chance really” against the 67-game winning Dallas Mavericks.
But Nelson’s plan and the execution by the We Believe team led to a historical result: Golden State became the first No. 8 seed in NBA history to upset and eliminate a No. 1 seed.
“Nellie had been here several times,” said Mullin as he praised his head coach’s leadership. “This was very comfortable for him, he loved being in the underdog role. Added to it was the dynamic he had with the Mavericks… that whole thing he flipped and put the pressure on them.”
“Nelson beat his protege, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson, and he also beat his former employer, the Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban,” wrote Jenkins. “All series, Johnson tried to match his wits with Nelson, and Cuban tried to match barbs.”
“They both came up short.”