Considering their depth, their regular-season record and the presence of three serious scorers, one might have thought that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have burned right through their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks. Instead, they've barely eked out two wins in their own building, the most recent a 102-99 escape Monday. Talent wills out, but the veteran Mavericks have given the Thunder all they can handle.
They used to play four games in a day, with the Dallas Mustangs and the Illinois Warriors, the Seattle Stars and the Wurzburg X-Rays, the Long Island Panthers and the Oakland Green Machine. They'd eat a muffin in the morning, play two games, a sandwich in the afternoon, play two more. "And then do it again the next day," Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd said.
The Mavericks are returning to the arena where they surrendered a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals, and that's not a bad thing. Without those events, Dirk Nowitzki may not be in the position he is in today.
The Mavericks and Heat return to the Finals for a rematch of 2006 but under much different circumstances. Miami, replete with its stars in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, garnered as many fans as enemies when the three joined forces last summer and went on to plow through the East this postseason. Dallas, with Dirk Nowitzki and a revamped supporting cast, surprised with a sweep of the Lakers and an all-out dominant run in the West. So what can we expect in this Finals sequel? Five SI.com NBA writers analyze how each team got this far and what lies ahead in the Finals.
I have a feeling about these Dallas Mavericks. I think it's finally their time. I know that's not the prevailing sentiment. The general consensus seems to be that the Miami Heat have finally figured out how to play together, how to finish close games properly, how to handle animosity they brought upon themselves with LeBron James' decision-with-a-capital-D and the absurdly premature, over-the-top welcoming celebration they threw for themselves that featured smoke and lasers and platforms rising up out of the stage and pretty much everything except Cirque du Soleil acrobats.
The phrase "pure shooter" has always struck me as slightly damning, suggesting a player who can whip anyone's butt in H-O-R-S-E might not be a complete player, and, further, might not be the guy you want to have the ball in crunch time. A pure shooter needs space and time, and you usually don't get much of either in the Finals, where, by Game 3, defenses not only have their opponent's play calls down but also most variations of them.
One of the best things about this rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and Mavericks is the credible arguments on behalf of each team. Who is the more valuable player, LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki? Does Miami have the edge because of the star power among James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or does Dallas hold an advantage based on depth of talent across the rotation? Will the Heat defense dominate the series, or will Nowitzki prove impossible to guard?
Years of playoff misery have given rise to Dirk Nowitzki as we see him today. As recently as one year ago he was being bottled up by a Spurs defense that forced the ball out of his hands while clamping off the deep shooting of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. That opening-round loss was Nowitzki's third in four years, as his Mavs had gone 10-21 in the playoffs since taking a flimsy 2-0 lead over Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals.
DALLAS -- These games are a reminder, a warning to the rest of the league from Dirk Nowitzki: I'm still here. Yes, Derrick Rose is the MVP and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have followings that span the miles between Laguna Beach and Biscayne Bay. They have Nike, Adidas, even State Farm in their back pockets. Nowitzki? There's a German bank that shows him the love, but that's about it. "Jump shots," said a Mavericks staffer, "don't sell sneakers."
DALLAS -- The Mavericks have been in a playoff funk for four years. That's why they've been classified as first-round underdogs despite their home court advantage. It's also why Jason Kidd reached out to Dirk Nowitzki for help on his three-point shooting, which turned out to be so successful that it enabled Nowitzki to survive six turnovers and 13 missed field goals of his own Saturday.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the Dallas Mavericks walked into their locker room at halftime Monday night, Dirk Nowitzki asked them the score. Jason Terry told him it was tied. "Oh, then you got 'em," Nowitzki said. "I'll just take the night off."
DALLAS -- The fan in the blue T-shirt couldn't have been older than 18, his enthusiasm bubbling over like a pot of boiling water. With the Mavericks and Celtics tied and the clock winding down in the fourth quarter Monday night, Dirk Nowitzki isolated on Boston's Glen Davis. With a hard jab step, Nowitzki created the slimmest of space between himself and Davis, just to elevate and knock down a 16-foot jumper that gave Dallas a two-point edge with 16.4 seconds left.
There will be no parade down Causeway Street in Boston or rally in front of the American Airlines Center in Dallas. There will be no self-aggrandizing announcements on still-under-construction Web sites, nor will the mayors of those two cities be tapped to deliver any moving speeches.
The Spurs-Mavericks series was expected to be one of the most hotly contested first-round matchups; and on Sunday, it didn't disappoint. Paced by a Herculean effort from Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas took Game 1, 100-94.
The MVP blues are gone. Dirk Nowitzki has been reunited with a Hall of Fame point guard, his Mavericks have reverted back to their original underdog persona, and no longer is Nowitzki asked to be all things in the Dallas offense.
There's a kind of reverse age discrimination going on in the NBA these days, which should come as no surprise in a league that allows a player who hasn't suited up in two years to be re-signed and thrown into a trade. Suddenly 35 is the new 25. The Phoenix Suns parted with 29-year-old Shawn Marion to land center Shaquille O'Neal, who turns a creaky 36 on March 6. The Cleveland Cavaliers unloaded a pair of twentysomethings (Larry Hughes, 29, and Drew Gooden, 26) to lay claim to center Ben Wallace, 33, forward Joe Smith, 32, and swingman Wally Szczerbiak, who turns 31 on March 5. The San Antonio Spurs hoped to bolster their chances of repeating by acquiring 6' 9" forward Kurt Thomas and point guard Damon Stoudamire, 35 and 34, respectively.
Dirk Nowitzki knew they were coming. As the Mavericks' power forward sat down to face a pack of reporters during Friday's All-Star media session, Nowitzki knew full well that the questions weren't going to be about his low-post play or his overall performance in the first half of the season.
The game's most expressive jump shooter is getting his legs back under him. He's curling in those 18-footers like a porpoise on the back flip. He's falling away, he's facing up with authority, he's going baseline in a twirl to see the ball landing soft as a balloon.
For a magazine story on Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, I recently spent time around both the Mavs and the Suns. Much of what I learned was to be expected. Nowitzki, for example, is such a gym rat that Avery Johnson has to threaten him with $1,000 fines so he doesn't come to the arena on off-days (says Nowitzki, "I pay a lot of fines"). On the Suns, Leandro Barbosa models himself after Nash to the point where he regularly takes home DVDs of his teammate ("I watch the DVD and then I watch again," says Barbosa, "to be more like Steve.").
Sooner or later it always happens: The Phoenix Suns run a pick-and-roll against the Dallas Mavericks, leaving Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki to face off at the top of the key. They have been there countless times before, Nowitzki in his awkward defensive crouch, his right arm extended as if a lion tamer's chair, his mouth guard protruding. Nash is in front of him, waiting for the help defense to clear out, for his teammates to space themselves, until it is just the two of them near the three-point line: the two-time MVP and this season's favorite, the two best players on the two best teams in the NBA, two men whose lives diverged but remain intertwined. This time they are playing in front of 18,422 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, but the setting could be anywhere. A YMCA in Dallas. The Western Conference finals. Nash's backyard.
In snubbing Josh Howard last month, the Western Conference coaches agreed: The Dallas Mavericks' only All-Star is Dirk Nowitzki. Though NBA commissioner David Stern eventually amended their vote by appointing Howard to the All-Star Game, the fact remains that this is a team that let two-time MVP Steve Nash walk, that has one of the least-experienced coaches in the league, and that is trying to play defense with a roster of players acquired for offense. So how has this eclectic group won its last 16 games to run away with the best record in the regular season? Here's how:
It wasn't exactly on par with Dwyane Wade's comments about Dirk Nowitzki's leadership. But Shaquille O'Neal created his own minor controversy last week when he took a shot at Steve Nash's back-to-back MVP awards.
Just as they don't hand out NBA titles in January (what a relief for Shaq and the defending champion Heat), they don't hand out individual awards at that early stage either. It takes a full six months and 82 games to ferret out the truly best in any given season. Still, it's fun to pause at the midway point and see where the hardware would go if the season ended today.