Suddenly, Don Nelson can't say enough good things about the Utah Jazz.

Absent from the Dallas coach's comments to the media after his team's practice Sunday was any mention of flopping or rough play or anything else that might be construed as criticism.

"The more film I watch, the more I'm impressed by what they do and how well they're coached," Nelson said.

And his praise didn't extend just to the Jazz. He's suddenly a huge fan of everything to do with Utah. In fact, he can't wait to return, which he'll do if his team wins Game 4 on Tuesday.

"The only thing we tell our team is get us back to that great city, Salt Lake, Utah," Nelson said. "We'd love to get back there, eat at their fine restaurants, visit all those fine Mormon people."

Nelson's comments were to some degree tongue-in-cheek, but he clearly was feeling magnanimous in the wake of his team's first playoff victory Saturday, which cut the Jazz's edge in this best-of-five series to 2-1.

And why not? He'd finally gotten what he wanted in winning Game 3 — a strong performance from Dirk Nowitzki, a friendly crowd, respect bordering on deference from the officials and, most importantly, a victory.

Nelson knows when he's got things right where he wants them, and he wasn't about to say anything that might change that situation. In fact, he sounded somewhat chagrined about the way he'd talked after losses in Games 1 and 2 in Salt Lake.

"We're going to stop talking about calls," he said. "We've been called whiners, and I'm not sure that wasn't accurate."

Again, it's easy for Nelson to say that now, in the wake of a huge advantage in fouls and free throws in Game 3. But unlike his players, Nelson did not try to chalk that up to the Jazz not being aggressive enough to get to the foul line.

"I don't think they can be more aggressive in driving and going to the hole," he said.

Instead, Nelson attributed the lack of Utah free throws to his players' finally playing defense as they've been taught.

"Our guys are really concentrating and making sure they play defense with their feet," he said.

Dallas players said they've been told since the start of the series to not even look like they're committing a foul, by keeping their arms and hands straight up instead of where the Jazz can make it look like they've been hacked.

There was one exception, of course — the flagrant called on Dallas' Shawn Bradley for laying a forearm on Karl Malone's forehead. The Dallas media pretty much universally praised Bradley for that act of defiance against the nasty bullies from Utah, but by Sunday the former BYU center seemed a tad embarrassed by the whole incident.

Or maybe he was remembering the suspension handed down to Malone earlier this season for popping Bradley with an elbow and worried that he might receive similar punishment.

"I wasn't trying to flagrant foul," he said. "I was trying to hard-foul . . . we felt we needed to play hard and play aggressive, or else Utah was going to walk all over us."

Bradley said coaches emphasized to the Mavs controlling "the things we have control over. Our initial reactions to plays or calls in the first two games wasn't as strong as it was last night."

In summing up, Nelson made it clear that he understood this game — much like the other two — could have gone either way.

"We can't play any harder or better at what we do, and Utah was right there with us," he said.

MAVERICKS NOTES: Nelson, on point guard Steve Nash: "I don't think you'd say he's better than John Stockton . . . but he sure is battling him, and about the time John Stockton is 40, 45, maybe he will be better."

Former Jazzman Howard Eisley, on his bench time in Games 1 and 2: "Anytime you don't get an opportunity to perform, you're going to get frustrated."

Bradley, on Nowitzki's comment that Salt Lake City is a "bad city": "We had a good little chat about that. I'm saying there was something lost in the translation."


E-MAIL: rich@desnews.com