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Friendly Fire

Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are best buddies off the court, but these two leading MVP candidates will not stop battling on the hardwood until one of them takes his team to its first championship

Posted: Tuesday April 17, 2007 2:49PM; Updated: Tuesday April 17, 2007 3:03PM
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Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks with Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns.
Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks with Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns.
Robert Beck/SI
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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.

Nash feints to the right. Nowitzki stutters backward, hoping to contain. He knows all of Nash's tricks -- the runner, the floater, the step back, the one-hand-extended layup, even the seldom-used hook -- but that doesn't make him any better at stopping them. The Mavs usually switch on the pick-and-roll, which means that the 7-foot Nowitzki must try to contain the 6'3" Nash many times in any given game. It is an uncomfortable situation for Nowitzki, who is neither quick nor exceptionally agile; he's like a defensive tackle trying to stop a wide receiver in the open field. Regardless, the fans relish the matchup, letting out a murmur of appreciation.

They are an unlikely pair of stars, these two. Who would have thought 10 years ago that a pair of skinny foreign finesse players, one a pass-first point guard and the other a three-point-shooting giant, would evolve into perennial MVP front-runners? "Might have made for a good movie," says Dallas assistant coach Del Harris, "but no one would think it was realistic." Despite their success, however, neither man is a global celebrity on a par with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James or even Carmelo Anthony, and neither has even been voted an All-Star starter. There are many reasons why, from their nationalities to their styles of play ("As you might have noticed," Nash says, "we're not big dunkers"), but the most relevant one is that neither man wants to be a worldwide celebrity, in contrast to James, who says he aspires to be "a global brand" and "the richest man in the world." Says Harris, who has known Nash and Nowitzki since they entered the league, "They're just regular guys who happen to be very good at what they do."

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