Nowitzki has also augmented his hoops cred by becoming an outstanding rebounder. He had 47 in the three games against Minnesota (to Garnett's 56), all but five of the defensive variety, since it's difficult to be active on the offensive glass when you're flinging shots from 25 feet. Then, too, Nowitzki has worked hard at overcoming his defensive weaknesses—though in the future he might think twice about fessing up to flopping, which he said helped him draw three fouls on Garnett on Sunday—and his teammates appreciate his toughness. He suffered a badly sprained left ankle that caused him to miss four games near the end of the season, and he tweaked it a couple of times during the Minnesota series. Immediately after Game 2 in Dallas, Helmut Uhl, a reporter who covers the Nowitzki beat for the Hamburg daily Bild espied the Dirkster climbing gingerly out of a golf cart and limping into the locker room, wincing all the while. Yet Nowitzki betrayed no trace of pain when he addressed the media a few minutes later. "He didn't want to show it," says Uhl. "That's the way he is. He is a mental wonder."
Nowitzki also rarely shows his playful, outgoing side to the public, but in the Mavericks' locker room he banters easily with his teammates. " Michael Finley," he'll say, shaking his head after Finley has torched the nets in a workout, "you practice so bad today. What is wrong with you?" The Mavs have an unusual hierarchy, their leadership coming from the triad of Finley, Nash and Nowitzki. The credit for how well it works lies with the first two. The 29-year-old Finley was the cornerstone of the franchise before the others got there, and Nash is the one with the ball and the tag of quarterback, yet both have dealt superbly with Nowitzki's rapid ascendancy. So what if Dirk had 28 points by halftime on Sunday? They knew their time would come.
So it did. Finley was practically a one-man offense in the third period, when he scored 13 of his 30 points, often initiating the Dallas attack from the point forward position that coach Don Nelson originated more than a decade ago with Paul Pressey in Milwaukee. And there was Nash delivering that knockout trey in the fourth period and finishing with 25 points. "You guard one, you guard two," Garnett said softly after the game, "but the third one makes you pay."
Nowitzki, who is destined to pass the late Drazen Petrovic as the NBA's best-ever European import, is the beneficiary of what Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson calls "the Jackie Robinson years" of the first Europeans. "Guys like Drazen and Sarunas Marciulionis took the razzing, took the beating, [put up with] all the stereotypes of how they couldn't play in the league," says Nelson, a European hoops expert of the first order and the guy who urged his father to make a '98 draft-day deal with the Bucks to get the rights to Nowitzki and Pat Garrity for Robert (Tractor) Traylor. "So a guy like Dirk comes along and doesn't have to deal with any of that. Our veterans accept him, and that gives him instant confidence."
Indeed, though he still converses with Uhl in Frankisch, a Bavarian dialect, Nowitzki seems totally Americanized. His teammates love his confidence, a cocksure willingness to take big shots that seems to have been born on a New York City playground. Asked whether Nash's three-pointer was the right shot at the time, and whether he, Nowitzki, should have run more seconds off the clock before he launched a jumper (it was good) on Dallas's next possession, Nowitzki's look was incredulous and his answer decisive. "For us," he said, "those shots are money."
Everything in Dallas seems wide-open, from owner Mark Cuban's pocketbook to Nelson's aggressive shoot-first-ask-questions-later mind-set. Small wonder that Nellie, during a lunch late in the regular season with good buddy Tony La Russa, gave the St. Louis Cardinals' manager the following advice: Use more hit-and-run. The whole scene is enhanced by the multicultural flavor of the team, which includes three foreign starters: the W�rzburg Wonder; Nash, a Canadian citizen who was born to English parents in Johannesburg, South Africa; and 6'8" defensive specialist Eduardo Najera, the only native Chihuahuan in an NBA lineup. At halftime of Sunday's game it was Najera who had the "trillionaire stat line"—a long list of zeros after his 10 minutes played—as Nelson pointed out. Embarrassed, Najera played an energetic second half and, right before Nash's decisive three-pointer, dived for a loose ball and got a timeout. The Mavs were buzzing about that after the game; consequential defensive plays, you see, tend to stand out on this team.
It's hard to predict whether Dallas's shotaholic madness will continue to work against the Kings, who closed out their series against the Jazz on Monday night. Disinclined as Sacramento will be to slow down the game, a shootout of the first order is in the offing. Let us rejoice at that prospect, for we have seen far too much bumping and grinding. Just for the fun of it, what we need now are a few more teams that think dagger.