DALLAS -- With Avery Johnson's return, inevitably talk of the failed 2006 Finals remains a topic of intrigue. Johnson made peace long ago with the blown 2-0 lead, one that was five minutes away from becoming a commanding 3-0 margin before Dwyane Wade took over and the Miami Heat won four in a row.
Still, making peace doesn't mean Johnson doesn't think about how close he came to leading the Dallas Mavericks to its first NBA title. And it doesn't mean it still doesn't sting either.
"More than anything [I think about] that 10-point lead with about five minutes to go and we just could not get a bucket. We couldn’t get stops, could not get a bucket and Miami had a guy [Wade] that averaged 20 free throws a game," Johnson said. "I just felt awfully bad for our team. You know I would do anything to have that moment back again. Because anytime you get in the Finals, you’re one of the last two teams standing and I’d do anything to have that chance back again, and I know Dallas would love to get back to the Finals after that."
Johnson took over the Mavs late in the 2004-05 season from Don Nelson,who stepped down after acknowleding that he had lost his desire to coach the team.
"That first day was still kind of surreal," Johnson said. "Nellie at 9 a.m. informed me that I was going to be the head coach. The next thing you know we had shootaround at 11, and he passed me a whistle and said, 'Boys, so long, here’s the next coach.' That’s typical Nellie."
The Finals trip came in Johnson's first full season as head coach and he won the NBA's Coach of the Year Award. As fast as the ride up was -- including a franchise-best 67-win season in 2006-07 -- the bottom fell out quickly as well -- including a six-game playoff loss to Golden State following the 67 wins. It all came to end in May 2008 after the Mavs feebly lost a five-game first-round playoff series to the New Orleans Hornets.
After spending the next two seasons in the ESPN studious as an NBA analyst, Johnson was hired as head coach of the rebuilding New Jersey Nets under new Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov.
Here's more of Johnson's thoughts on a variety of topics after the Nets wrapped up practice Wednesday afternoon at the American Airlines Center:
On staying in contact with Mavs players and personnel: Mark [Cuban] and I text every three weeks or so. [Jason] Terry is good. I get a lot of messages from Dirk Nowitzki through [Nets assistant coach] popeye [Jones], [assistant general manager] Keith Grant and I are still close. I’m really good with everybody here."
On having regrets from time in Dallas: "Oh no, none, no regrets, no way, not one. I would say as you go back, I was 39 years old when I got this job, maybe a lineup change here or there, or a situation here or there, but I wouldn’t say as a regret. It’s something I learn from."
On how he's changed: "I’m a different person in some ways. Not from discipline or accountability or details, just teaching a lot more, I got younger guys. I inherited a [Dallas] team that didn’t have a lot of playoff experience, but had quite a bit of regular-season experience and basketball players that could work themselves out of some jams. I’m teaching a lot more now than I did then at that point.
On what caused Josh Howard's downfall:"I talked to him one or two times in the offseason. Josh is recovering from an ACL injury and he’s 30 now and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with his career. Obviously, there were some setbacks here, but Josh played awfully well for me. Josh was the best first-quarter player that I coached and I had seen in a long time. His versatility at the 3-spot really was a huge asset for us. Josh got better, became an All-Star. Obviously, there was a setback here and there, but I’m interested to see what type of player he’s going to be post-ACL injury, because if he can get back to playing the way he played when he was an All-Star he’s going to be an asset for any franchise."
On being fired despite owning the best winning percentage (.735) in franchise and league history:Time for me to go. That was it. Time for me to go. Like we say sometimes in professional sports, teams need a new voice and a coach needs a new audience, no matter what his record is. That’s why, again, you see me still in contact with Mark Cuban. That’s why he still gets one of my beautiful Christmas cards every year. I don’t think when a guy gets fired it’s always got to be a bad thing and there has to be animosity. When I left San Antonio, [coach Gregg] Popovich helped me pack when I went to Denver, and he’s one of my closest friends. So, again, it’s the same thing here. Because I got fired it [doesn't] always got to be a bad thing. Everybody just needed to go in a different direction. I needed a two-year break and it was fantastic, on a personal level and on a professional level."
On reuniting with point guard Devin Harris: "It's been good. I'm glad to be back with Devin. He’s playing awfully well. The two games he missed here recently [with a knee injury] we definitely missed him. He came back and had 18 [points] and 13 [assists] last night. When he’s on the floor and he’s playing well we’re a pretty good team. And he’s got a lot of pressure on him because when he’s not playing well, we’re not as good."
On if he still hears Mark Cuban's voice in his head screaming at officials from his baseline seat: Not at all. That was a good thing because that actually got me hired because he was so close to the bench. [Prokhorov] sits in the suites and I barely even see him sometimes after the games."