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Lest anyone forget, Dirk Nowitzki is not of this land—maybe not of this earth. He is a 7-foot small forward from Germany who at week's end was converting a breathtaking 65% of his shots from beyond the three-point are in the playoffs, which, for sake of comparison, is a higher rate than Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal was managing with his more conventional array of dunks and put-backs around the basket By doing so, Nowitzki was carrying the Dallas Mavericks toward a likely Western Conference semifinal reunion with the Sacramento Kings, who breezed through Dallas in five games when the teams met in the same round a year ago. � This time, however, the Mavs promise to offer a more engaging and enigmatic puzzle to the Kings, mainly because of the emergence of the 24-year-old Nowitzki as a go-to guy with the long-distance flair of a Larry Bird. Even though the Portland Trail Blazers finally beat the Mavs at home on Sunday, they'd already become the only club in this year's first round to fall into a 3-0 hole (from which no NBA playoff team has ever recovered). That was due largely to Nowitzki, who had rattled them for a career-high 46 points in a 96-86 Game 1 win at Dallas and 42 in the Mavs' 115-103 Game 3 victory at Portland, during which he put a stranglehold on the series with a 16-point eruption in the fourth quarter. "Every championship team has a guy who dominates throughout the playoffs," says Dallas guard and co-captain Michael Finley. "For us, Dirk is that guy."
Last year Dallas seemed too balanced for its own good: Because the Mavs never knew if it was going to be Finley, Nowitzki or point guard Steve Nash who would lead the team on any given night, the job sometimes seemed like a pop fly that falls at the feet of three indecisive infielders. "Having Dirk emerge gives us clarity," says Nash. Indeed, everyone in the Mavs' locker room acknowledges that Nowitzki is their No. 1 option except for Nowitzki, who humbly refuses to agree with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that "this is now Dirk's team." Responds Nowitzki, "I wouldn't say it's my team at all. We still have a lot of options."
But don't be deceived by his modesty. "He reminds me of Tim Duncan a little bit," says Mavs reserve point guard Avery Johnson, referring to his teammate on the 1999 champion San Antonio Spurs. "Dirk starts to mumble a lot in the fourth quarter when he goes up and down the court a couple of times and he hasn't gotten the ball. He's not doing it in a selfish way; he's just saying, 'I can get us something nice.' "
While six Mavs averaged at least 9.0 points in the first four games against Portland, the main plotline always involved Nowitzki. Though Dallas won a club-record 60 regular-season games, the Mavericks' playoff chances were downgraded after they lost eight of 17 near the end of the season to hand over the top spot in the West to the Spurs. But for the postseason Dallas coach Don Nelson changed his rotation, shifting Nowitzki from power forward to small forward, gaining rebounding and shot blocking from a tall-ball front line that often includes 7' 6" center Shawn Bradley and 6' 11" forward-center Raef LaFrentz. Nowitzki had struggled when Nellie experimented with him at small forward early in the season, but his low-post moves and passing out of the double team have improved enough for him to move inside and exploit mismatches against smaller defenders. "Dirk eventually will make the [permanent] move to small forward," Nelson predicts. "If he can learn to shoot a jump hook, we'll have a dominant low-post guy as a small forward and you'll see him become one of the top five players in the league."
In the meantime Nowitzki's dramatic flair in the open court is like something from a production of Peter Pan, as he dribbles full speed to the three-point line before pulling up as if hoisted by cables, his legs kicking out in midair for balance while he smoothly releases his jumper. Nowitzki had fallen into a minor shooting slump at the end of the regular season but rediscovered his stroke last week with the help of his longtime coach-manager, Holger Geschwindner, who arrived from Germany two days before the playoffs and has been reminding Nowitzki on a daily basis to keep his fingers spread and extend his shooting elbow. "We've been together for six years, and he sees the smallest mistakes that I make," says Nowitzki, whose 53-3% shooting from the field in the first four games against Portland was a 7.0% hike from the regular season.
Though Nowitzki produced 26 points and 11 rebounds in three quarters of Game 4, the Mavs were blown out 98-79 to send the series back to Dallas for Wednesday's Game 5. Point guard Nick Van Exel, Nash and Finley were averaging a combined 37.2 points while shooting a collective 40.8%, which may be acceptable against the self-destructive Blazers but surely won't do against deep and focused Sacramento. These Mavs, though, seem to have more backbone than the club the Kings bounced last season. When Portland forced them to play to a slower, postseason pace, the Mavs beat the Blazers at their own game—a promising sign that Dallas has learned to get its trademark quick shots even while playing the half-court game that usually prevails during the playoffs. The Mavs have also developed an understanding of how and when to ratchet up their defense, as they did during the fourth quarter of Game 3, when their variations of the 2-3 zone and helping man-to-man held the Blazers to 33.3% shooting.
Dallas's iron man is the lean, rawboned Nowitzki, who played all but two minutes of the first three games against Portland but refused to admit to fatigue. "I'm 24 years old, I'm not going to be tired now," Nowitzki said after Sunday's game. He also noted his teammates' resolve: "You should have been in our locker room after this game. Everyone was staring into space, and it looked like we'd lost the series."
Take note, C-Webb and Vlade: These are not your soft Mavericks of years past.