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A successful spinoff of `The Apprentice'

DALLAS -- Has Dallas coach Don Nelson gone mad? OK, not exactly a fair question considering the former Celtic is known for his unorthodox methods. But even those who know Nelson find the apprenticeship of Avery Johnson a little strange.

While it's not uncommon for head coaches to rely heavily on associate head coaches (think Rick Pitino and Jim O'Brien), the Nelson-Johnson partnership has gone much further.

Johnson, who retired as a player in October to become an assistant coach, runs practices, takes over during timeouts, and has even coached games. His job description sounds more like head-coach-in-training.

Asked if that were the case, Johnson said, "I would sure hope so. That's how we all view it. Not a lot of people have this opportunity, so I want to make sure I take advantage of it by staying prepared and working hard.

"It's a situation that's rare. Not many players retire and go directly into being high up the ladder like I am. I'm real grateful to this coaching staff and our owner for giving me this opportunity."

As another player-turned-coach, Boston's Doc Rivers recognizes that it has to be the right situation -- the right person and the right franchise -- for something like this to work.

"I don't think it's a bad idea if it's Avery," said Rivers. "If he's going to be the next head coach here, I think it officially separates the ex-player/coach thing. Now they know he's a coach.

"It gives him a chance to try out some things that he may have always wanted to do. I don't think it's a bad thing. I don't think it's a distraction. At the end of the day, they still know who the head coach is."

Cleaning job
There were a lot of whistles last night at American Airlines Center. The officiating crew of Monty McCutchen, Gary Zielinski, and Marc Davis issued seven individual technicals, two flagrant fouls on the Mavericks, and three ejections (Jerry Stackhouse, Shawn Bradley, and Ricky Davis). "I thought the refs were trying to clean it up," said Rivers. "I don't know why there were short tempers. It's not like it was a 1-point game. I have seen 1-point, 2-point games where guys lose their tempers, but this was a 20-point, 30-point game and we are getting ejections, flagrant fouls, and all that stuff." Davis, who was ejected with 6:51 remaining, called the referees "technical happy." . . . For those unfamiliar with the substitution patterns used by Rivers, the occasional absence of Gary Payton in the fourth quarter and the cautious allotment of minutes to the point guard in general may raise questions. But it's all part of a grand plan to conserve the 36-year-old veteran. Even though Payton wants to be on the floor -- he played 27 minutes last night and is averaging 33 -- he continues to accept the way Rivers uses him without complaint. "He's doing it for a reason and I'm not going to question him," said Payton. "He'll come and tell me what the reason is. By the time February comes, I think he'll start picking it up and want to win basketball games and play [me] more minutes. This is how he wants to work it, so I'm going to go along with it." . . . According to Rivers, Tom Gugliotta could come off the injured list as early as tonight in Memphis.

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