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kriD
02-13-2006, 09:05 AM
Don't expect Johnson to let up any

By ART GARCIA
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

In just a few days, Avery Johnson is going into a practice unlike any he's witnessed before.

Dirk Nowitzki will be there. Ditto for assistants Del Harris, Joe Prunty and Rolando Blackman.

And though the rest of the faces are familiar, including some former teammates, the scene isn't like anything he has experienced in 16 years as a player. Or in the year-and-a-half since he's been coaching.

He'll be at an All-Star practice. All eyes, well, a lot of them, will be on Johnson, the head coach of the Western Conference team for Sunday's All-Star Game at the Toyota Center in Houston.

"It's hard for me to anticipate that right now," Johnson said recently. "If you were to interview me Thursday or Friday or somewhere in there before the game ... it's just hard to kind of let myself go into that mode right now.

"But I'm sure I'll be flattered that my team sent me there. It's an honor because I didn't have a chance to play in the All-Star Game. I want to make sure that I'm not too much out in the forefront. All I want to do is be in the background. It's an All-Star players game that they just happen to have some coaches there just to call some timeouts."

Don't be fooled. Johnson isn't going just to call timeouts. Sure, he'll lighten up some, but to expect Johnson to become a traffic cop is like asking Charles Barkley to jump on the Mavs' bandwagon.

It's not going to happen.

"It's a game where I guess you joke around, but at the end you want to win," Nowitzki said. "Avery will want to win."

Johnson's Mavericks have done plenty of that this season, joining Detroit and San Antonio as the NBA's elite triumvirate as the season gets closer to the stretch run.

Johnson's team for the weekend isn't short on star power with three former MVPs -- Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett -- the guy who scored 81 (Kobe Bryant) and a couple of hometown favorites in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

"It'll be fun," Bryant said.

The East squad boasts LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and all those Detroit Pistons.

Pistons coach Flip Saunders is Johnson's (friendly) coaching adversary. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, ineligible to coach the West because he did so last season, may serve as a sounding board for how Johnson approaches the game.

"I just want to keep it simple," Johnson said. "I talked to Del about it. I'll probably talk to Pop about it before the break and just kind of see what he's done."

Coaches, though, are usually little more than footnotes to the NBA's Grammys. Mission No. 1 is trying to avoid pairings as mismatched as Paul McCartney and Jay-Z.

"I just want to stay out of the way, call timeouts, make substitutions, make sure everybody gets a chance to play," said Johnson, who claims he doesn't know which team won last year's All-Star Game. "And, obviously, you want to win and you want to play right, but it's their show."

And if that means calling a few extra plays for McGrady or Yao, so be it.

"Everybody understands that local flavor," he said. "The hard part is if the game is on the line with 10 seconds [left] ... you've got so many players that you can run a play for."

Johnson, however, will snare his share of the spotlight this weekend.

One of the more respected and well-liked players within the league during his career, the Little General is as close to a Texan as a New Orleans native can be.

He's played for all three NBA franchises in the Lone Star State, a claim few can make. His playing career was defined in San Antonio, his coaching career is off to a record-setting start in Dallas and the Houston suburb of The Woodlands is his off-season home.

The closest he came to an All-Star Game as a player? Try the annual players' party the Friday night before the showcase event.

"I'm not trying to be so humble that I don't understand the ramifications of what's going on," Johnson said. "We've had a pretty good start to my coaching career and to have this happen in my first year, hey, it's pretty good. I have a really terrific support system, and I have guys that really practice and play hard."

Maybe he'll get his first All-Star team to do the same.