At the end of every empty spring Dirk Nowitzki goes back to a tiny community gymnasium in the German village of Rattelsdorf and finds the man who discovered him. Holger Geschwindner is a 65-year-old former physicist with white hair and penetrating blue eyes who learned basketball from American soldiers stationed in Germany after World War II, made the West German Olympic team in 1972 and played for an adult league team in Würzburg. One day his adult league game was pushed back because a youth game had gone to overtime, and as Geschwindner waited in the stands, he noticed a gangly but coordinated 16-year-old. "He has all the ability," Geschwindner thought, "but none of the tools."
Geschwindner eventually invited Nowitzki to work out with him in Rattelsdorf, 50 miles from Nowitzki's home in Würzburg, and together they began to fill what Geschwindner calls "Dirk's toolbox." Geschwindner gave Nowitzki his high release, based on calculus he developed for the ideal jump shot, which has an arc of at least 47 degrees. In the years since Nowitzki was drafted in the first round by the Mavericks, became an All-Star and won the 2007 MVP trophy, he kept returning to Rattelsdorf, with a checklist of tools he wanted to add: rebounding, defense, passing out of double teams, finishing after contact, spin moves, bank shots, fadeaways.
Nowitzki's skill set grew, but Dallas blew a 2--0 lead to the Heat in the Finals in 2006, won 67 games and lost in the first round in 2007, fell again in the first round in 2008 and once more a year ago. He had a hard time escaping the most tired tag in sports: Can't win the big one. While a less Teutonic player might have shown his angst, Nowitzki quietly took it back to Rattelsdorf and poured it out in the old gym. He retooled again and again. "Dirk is a very private person," says Mavericks president Donnie Nelson. "But he took a lot of arrows and went through a lot of pain. Most people would have been broken."
On Sunday morning Nowitzki drove to American Airlines Center with Geschwindner, who put him through a private workout on the Mavericks' practice court. "We reviewed all the tools he would need for this special game," Geschwindner says. Two hours later, Nowitzki & Co. opted for the sledgehammer and bludgeoned the Lakers 112--86 in Game 4, sweeping the two-time champions out of the second round and muting whatever retirement party Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson had in mind. When Nowitzki was asked how he would commemorate his first trip to the Western Conference finals in five years, after a series in which he cast his playoff bugaboos aside with 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, he said, "I think I'm going to have some pizza." Then he drove home with Geschwindner, who is staying in an upstairs guest room, and will not be going back to Germany anytime soon.
The Mavs' newfound mettle dates back only 15 days, when they were on the verge of another first-round catastrophe. They squandered a 23-point lead to the Trail Blazers in Game 4 and trudged off the court with frozen faces, looking no different than they had at Golden State in '07, New Orleans in '08 and San Antonio last April. "It was the defining moment in our season," says guard Jason Terry. When the Mavs returned to Portland for Game 6, they had a players-only dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House, and watched the Grizzlies face the Spurs on a television in a back room. "We were just friends talking basketball," Terry says. "You could feel the camaraderie between us. We were not going to lose in the first round again."
Dallas has now won six straight games, none more convincing than the closeout of the Lakers, when the Mavericks' brisk ball movement led to a playoff-record-tying 20 three-pointers. For the series they outscored L.A. from beyond the arc 147--45. Owner Mark Cuban couldn't have been giddier if he'd been gifted the Dodgers. The Mavs have a three-point-shooting contest they play at practice, and when someone gets hot, an assistant coach yells, "Smell the smoke." The burning scent from Game 4 could linger. Terry, the sixth man, sank nine of 10 threes. Backup forward Peja Stojakovic, released by the Raptors in January, drained six of six. Reserve point guard J.J. Barea, an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, scored 22 points. This was the Big Three that felled a potential dynasty.
The first month of the playoffs—thrilling as it was, with Grizzlies upsets, Derek Rose drives and Kevin Durant daggers—produced nothing more spectacular than the Lakers' combustion. There was outrage (vice president Magic Johnson saying the L.A. roster should be "blown up"), intrigue (center Andrew Bynum claiming the team suffered from "trust issues") and plenty of violence. Small forward Ron Artest was suspended for Game 3 because he clotheslined Barea late in Game 2, while sixth man Lamar Odom (who shoved Nowitzki) and Bynum (who elbowed an airborne Barea in the ribs) were ejected from Game 4. Even Jackson, a portrait of sideline zen for two decades, chose his final hours to summon his inner Bobby Knight and pop power forward Pau Gasol in the chest. This was not quite the ending Jackson envisioned for his next book. The Lakers blew a 16-point lead in the third quarter of Game 1, an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and were in such a hurry to flee Dallas in Game 4 that Bynum peeled off his jersey before leaving the court. "I saw in their faces," Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson said after Game 4, "they weren't there."
Kobe Bryant handled the Lakers' comeuppance with the most aplomb, though he had the most to lose. For three years Bryant staved off LeBron James—both the puppet version and the human one—in the race contrived by advertising executives for Best Basketball Player in the World. It didn't matter that James was stronger, faster and 11 years younger, because he was regularly home each June while Bryant was still playing, and every sports bar argument ended right there. Implied in the case for Bryant, however, was a cruel caveat: The moment his team fell short, even if through no fault of his own, his perch would be gone, probably forever.
Bryant was not fully responsible for the Lakers' demise, but neither was he powerful enough to stop it. He needed 52 shots—spanning nearly 2½ games—before making his first layup, and while he might have been hampered by a sprained left ankle, he was more likely limited by Dallas's pseudo--zone defense, which packed the lane with a guard at each elbow and a big man on each block. The Mavericks were content to give up open jumpers as long as they kept Bryant out of the paint. "Kobe's missing some shots he normally makes," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle after Game 2.
Many players, including Nowitzki, still refer to Bryant as the best in the league almost as a reflex, out of deference to his championships and late-game chops. But Hornets point guard Chris Paul outperformed Bryant in the first round, and Nowitzki did the same in the second, even in the clutch. In Game 1, Bryant clanked a three-pointer at the buzzer right after he threw an errant pass and fell down trying to take a handoff. In Game 3 he missed his final four shots and tossed away another pass. "The last five minutes are when I go to work," Bryant said. "And I didn't."