THEY APPEAR to be
the yin and yang of 7-foot superstars. One spent four years methodically honing
his skills at Wake Forest; the other impulsively jumped from W�rzburg, Germany,
to the NBA as a 20-year-old. One pounds away with his back to the basket deep
in the coal mines of the paint; the other prefers to flick jumpers from the
playground beyond the three-point line. But during the much-anticipated Western
Conference semifinal between the Spurs and the Mavericks, this much will become
clear: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have more in common than it would seem.
similarities in their personalities--which Nowitzki, at first, is in no rush to
accept. "Are you saying I'm boring?" he asks. Boring? No, though it's
true that neither Duncan nor Nowitzki courts attention. Humble, demanding,
tough on themselves? Definitely. "I love the way he approaches
everything," says Nowitzki of Duncan. "I like how he always plays hurt,
how he's always out there to help his team whether he's 100 percent or
"Both are guys
who just love to work hard," says Dallas coach Avery Johnson, who was
Duncan's point guard for four years. "They're not in-your-face guys, and
they like to lead by example. Sometimes the way they lead has been
misinterpreted that they don't care."
The champion Spurs
have never been more threatened by their intrastate rival, thanks largely to
the insights that Johnson culled from his mentor, San Antonio coach Gregg
Popovich, and has disseminated throughout the Dallas organization. "Pop and
Avery are obviously similar in many ways," says Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
"We have tried to take the best of what Avery sees in the Spurs and bring
some added value." Still, despite a 60-win season, in which they split
their season series with the Spurs and the Pistons, the Mavs have been
dismissed as contenders because of their reliance on Nowitzki. Critics believe
he's too passive to inspire his team--the same knock that the Spurs' star put
to rest by winning two of the last three titles.
Upon replacing Don
Nelson in March 2005, Johnson set about molding Nowitzki in the image of
Duncan, making the same demands--with the same forcefulness--that Popovich
makes of his eight-time All-Star. While retaining Nowitzki's value as the NBA's
top mismatch-maker on the perimeter, Johnson made him fulfill more of the
traditional duties of a 7-footer. " Avery gave him this whole menu,"
says Mavericks president Donnie Nelson. "He said, 'I want you to be an
offensive rebounder; I don't want you just standing out by the three-point
line; I want you to be in and around the paint a lot offensively and
defensively; and oh, by the way, you need to keep up the defensive rebounding.
And I want you to block shots and take charges, and I want you to be
struggled with the workload, breaking 30 points only once in last year's
postseason, when Dallas lost in the second round to the Suns. He averaged 31.3
points in the Mavs' first-round sweep of the Grizzlies, but in Sunday's opener
at San Antonio he faced a much sterner test, missing 12 of his 20 shots as
6'7" Bruce Bowen consistently pushed him out of the high post with what
Johnson called "a bear hug defense." "I know I'm not going to score
35 [per game] in this series," Nowitzki said after struggling for 20.
"Not even on the screen-and-roll are they coming off me now. I've just got
to make shots off the dribble."
Which elevates the
importance of his teammates, who should be well prepared for their roles. In
much the same way that Johnson has cited Duncan as a model for Nowitzki, he has
used the Spurs as a template for the Mavs--starting with making defense his
players' primary concern. Johnson instituted San Antonio's principle of forcing
the ball out of the paint and to the baseline. Offensively, Dallas will still
fast-break when possible, but Johnson doesn't mind chewing up the shot clock to
force the opponent to work harder, another Spurs precept. "Nellie did a
great job turning things around, but I don't know he completely believed we
could win a championship with the team we have," says Cuban. " Avery
made it clear that we could and put in the system and culture to set us on that
Now Dallas has a
chance to realize Johnson's vision. Will Nowitzki overtake Duncan? Whose
defense will prove more impenetrable? For all the likenesses between the two
teams, however, it's clear that the Mavericks are tired of hearing about the
way they do business in San Antonio. "They ain't the pioneers of
basketball," says sixth man Jerry Stackhouse. "Winning basketball
didn't start with Popovich." That may be Johnson's biggest gift to his
players: They no longer think they're inferior.