SALT LAKE CITY -- Comparisons between John Stockton and Steve Nash are inevitable. Each is a deft ballhandler who played college ball in the overlooked West Coast Conference.
In fact, the 27-year-old Nash is sometimes called the next Stockton, which the 39-year-old Stockton regards as a compliment.
"He's a terrific player. He's a young guy and he's very, very capable," said Stockton, who came out of then-unheralded Gonzaga in 1984 to become the NBA's career leader in assists and steals.
Stockton and Nash will face off in Game 1 of the Dallas-Utah first-round playoff series Saturday.
"John Stockton and Steve Nash, it's a really good matchup," said Dallas coach Don Nelson. "Old guy and young guy. Stockton knows it all and has done it all. Steve would like to."
The comparisons don't bother Stockton, consider by many to be the best point guard in NBA history, ahead of Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson.
"That's inevitable, just because of the look and the similar size," Stockton said. "I'm flattered by that. He was a terrific player in college and he's become a terrific player in the NBA."
Nash spoke of his respect for Stockton, saying he's had "the type of career any professional athlete dreams of having." But Nash also noted that Stockton has been in 168 playoff games, while many of the Mavericks are making their postseason debuts.
"If you look at his playoff experience compared to ours, it's comical," said Nash, a two-time West Coast Conference player of the year at Santa Clara.
Yet Nash shares another attribute with Stockton: unwavering confidence. The Mavericks won twice in the Delta Center this season, snapping a 25-game losing streak in Salt Lake City, and Nash feels good about their chances again.
"We don't think we need to be lucky to win," Nash said. "If we play well, we know we can beat them, regardless of the arena. They will have to play very well to beat us."
The Mavericks, and especially Nash, played great when they ended their Salt Lake losing streak in November. Nash had 17 points and a career-high 17 assists, then hit two late free throws to seal the victory.
But the series is about more than the point guards, and there are plenty of other intriguing matchups.
There's Michael Finley of Dallas against Utah's Bryon Russell at shooting guard. Finley, who also has defended the point in recent weeks, is a strong perimeter shooter and Russell usually draws the tough assignments.
"I'm ready to go and I'm sure he's ready for the challenge as well," Russell said. "He's a good player, a good one-on-one player and a good perimeter player. He's a good leaper."
Finley said, "The series will come down to defense. The team that sets the tone and takes away the other team's weapons will win."
Donyell Marshall of the Jazz, making his first postseason appearance after seven years mostly with the Golden State Warriors, faces sharp-shooting Dallas big man Dirk Nowitzki.
"A lot of teams, like the Lakers or the Spurs, you've got to run back to the paint on defense," Marshall said. "Here, you've got to run to halfcourt and turn around because they're going to spot up and pull up from anywhere."
Then there's Karl Malone against the Mavericks.
In the past two years, the Mailman put a knee into Shawn Bradley, inadvertently twisted Nowitzki's arm across his back, bumped chests with Nelson and feuded with Dallas owner Mark Cuban.
This week, Malone has tried to avoid fanning any flames. Asked Friday if there's bad blood in the series, the Mailman had a short answer.
"I don't think so," he said.
Malone also had a surprise at Friday's practice. His beard, which had grown shaggy over the final two months of the regular season, was trimmed neatly to the short crop that Malone usually wears.
He had grown out his beard to win a bet, reportedly worth $10,000, with Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson and several other teammates who didn't think he could make it to the playoffs before shaving.
"I will give DeShawn credit," Malone said. "He made a veteran move and paid me in cash."
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