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The Mettle Round
Ian Thomsen
May 15, 2006
Dallas's coach sought to remake Dirk Nowitzki's game along the lines of Tim Duncan's. Now he'll find out if he did a good enough job
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May 15, 2006

The Mettle Round

Dallas's coach sought to remake Dirk Nowitzki's game along the lines of Tim Duncan's. Now he'll find out if he did a good enough job

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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.

Take the 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 not."

"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 tougher.'"

Nowitzki initially 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 path."

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.