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Better Than an Outside Shot
Jack McCallum
June 12, 2006
The best pure shooter for a big man since Larry Bird, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki may no longer be the most overlooked superstar in the NBA by the time the championship series is over
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June 12, 2006

Better Than An Outside Shot

The best pure shooter for a big man since Larry Bird, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki may no longer be the most overlooked superstar in the NBA by the time the championship series is over

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DIRK NOWITZKI 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 series.

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.

But Dallas's 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?

Whatever Miami 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.