shook his head in mock exasperation. "Those damn Germans," he said. Yet
another TV crew from Deutschland had kept him from his appointment with a cold
beer or two back in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room. "This is a big story
[in Germany]," he said last Saturday night, stating the obvious, after he
had scored 24 points in the Mavs' 102-93 Game 6 Western Conference finals
victory over the Phoenix Suns that sent Dallas to its first NBA championship
The question is:
How big a story is Nowitzki in the U.S.? We'll find out over the next couple of
weeks, but one could argue that no NBA superstar is as overlooked as Nowitzki,
who finished 21st in this year's All-Star Game voting. ( Houston's Tracy McGrady
got three times more votes than Nowitzki for doing three times less.) There is
no doubt that Shaquille O'Neal's oversized personality and oversized body will
dominate the gestalt of the Finals, whether his Miami Heat beats Nowitzki's
club. And if you're looking for Mavs story lines, you'll probably turn first to
undersized coach Avery Johnson and his oversized personality, then to
normal-sized owner Mark Cuban and his oversized personality.
on-court fortunes will surely rest on the performance of the 7-foot Nowitzki,
"the man we look to on every possession, every minute, every night of the
year," as point guard Jason Terry puts it. You wonder if Nowitzki, who is
in his eighth season, is one of the game's true prototypes; in his case the
7-footer who thrives--not just plays, thrives--on the perimeter.
"Obviously, [ Minnesota's] Kevin Garnett is a great player who can shoot
from the outside," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who watched Nowitzki lay
50 points on his team in Dallas's 117-101 series-turning Game 5 victory last
Thursday night, "but in Dirk's case, you're talking about one of the great
shooters ever to play the game, a guy in Larry Bird's class as a pure shooter.
Then you add the fact that he's seven feet tall."
A giant who
prefers the perimeter is inevitably viewed as being soft, and, indeed, that tag
has followed Nowitzki from his native W�rzburg to Big D. He no doubt needed the
Mavs' ascendancy to help invalidate the premise, but it has always been flawed.
Nowitzki is a terrific rebounder (his career number is 8.5 per game, but he has
averaged nine or more in five of the last six seasons) and a willing
competitor, whose career playoff mark of 25.9 points per game exceeds his
regular-season rate of 22.0. The jokes about his defense were an uncontested
layup for his critics (he is known as "Irk", as in no D), but being a
mediocre defender does not necessarily equate with softness. Nowitzki's best
buddy, Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, is a mediocre defender, yet Nash is
called "spunky" and "feisty" and all sorts of other nice
things--not to mention "two-time MVP."
There is a
certain heavy-footed ponderousness to Nowitzki's defense, but the same can be
said of his exquisite offense--he often bulls his way to wherever he needs to
go with a slow-motion, back-down dribble. And while Nowitzki has virtually no
crossover move, he doesn't need one because his spin step is so effective. The
Suns talked about trying to "catch his spin" with a second defender,
but, like most every other team, had no success because Nowitzki is too strong
and too skilled.
The fact that he
doesn't post up more has also contributed to his rep for being soft. But
questioning why Nowitzki doesn't score the majority of his points near the
basket is like asking why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't score the majority of his
points from the perimeter. Nowitzki's fallaway jumper is the game's most
unblockable shot since Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook. "You just can't get it,"
says Suns center Boris Diaw, "so there is no use trying."
In the conference
semifinals against San Antonio, Nowitzki invented a new position halfway
between the low box and the perimeter by posting up the smaller Spurs defenders
at the foul line. So when a deadly 7-foot shooter has it 15 feet from the
basket, what are you going to do about it?
decides to do with Nowitzki--6'8" power forward Udonis Haslem will likely
draw the defensive assignment (box, page 44)--he is sure to be the Heat's
biggest headache in the Finals, which were to begin Thursday in Dallas. Meaning
that the next complaint you hear about "those damn Germans" might be
coming from Shaq & Co.