The scene at American Airlines Center on Sunday morning could have taken place in any driveway from Würzburg to Fort Worth. Corey Brewer, a reserve forward for the Mavericks, was the last player at shootaround, dribbling 40 feet from the basket, leaping off his left foot, limbs flailing as he let fly. "Like Dirk Nowitzki!" he yelped, and then grimaced as his skyscraping three-pointer smacked off the side of the rim.
Nowitzki's moves are inimitable: the methodical spins and turnarounds, the lumbering leaners and fadeaways, the surprising up-and-unders and reverse layups. Since he is seven feet and cannot run like Dwyane Wade or levitate like LeBron James, his moves may appear cumbersome. But he has so many of them, employed from such diverse angles and locations, that he has earned the title granted only a few one-on-one dynamos: unguardable.
In this era of zone defenses, early double teams and advanced analytics, when coaches know what percentage a player shoots while moving to his left after setting the screen on a pick-and-roll, there would seem to be an answer for everybody. But Nowitzki has led his team to the Finals with one of the most awesome individual surges in postseason history. "Right now no defense can determine whether he makes or misses," says Dallas backup center Brendan Haywood. "It's up to him."
That was certainly true against the Lakers and the Thunder, but the Heat has been as tightfisted as the Bulls and the Celtics this season, which may come as a surprise to those who assume James and Wade subsist on alley-oops alone. Miami actually prevents as many highlights as it produces. Coach Erik Spoelstra employed a lesser-known Big Three—6'8" Udonis Haslem, 6'9" Joel Anthony and 6'11" Chris Bosh—to cover Nowitzki like an extra jersey in the finals. While Nowitzki provides Heat defenders with their most dynamic challenge, they do the same for him. In the end Haywood may be right that Miami's coverage cannot determine the result of a Nowitzki jumper, but its defense will very likely determine the winner of the championship.
With the series tied and less than five minutes remaining in Sunday's Game 3, Haslem sat at the end of the bench, sipping a cup of water. This was the moment he had longed for when he rushed through six months of rehabilitation this season on his surgically repaired left foot. Now that his opportunity had finally arrived, Haslem, who had played nearly 26 minutes in the game to that point, felt too lightheaded and leg-weary to take advantage. He had asked Spoelstra to give him a minute. Spoelstra gave him 83 seconds. Then he sent Haslem back on the floor, dehydrated but determined, with Nowitzki in the middle of another Larry Bird impersonation.
In Game 2, Nowitzki scored the last nine points for Dallas, including a driving layup on Bosh to cap an unimaginable comeback that saw the Mavs rally from 88--73 down with 7:14 left to win 95--93. Why Spoelstra chose Bosh over Haslem, who smothered Nowitzki in the 2006 Finals, was a question even the coach could not answer. Nowitzki shot 60% against Bosh in single-coverage situations in the first two games of the series, according to Synergy Sports, and only 38.5% against Haslem. In Game 3, with Nowitzki rolling again, Spoelstra had to try a new stopper. It was Nowitzki versus Haslem, just like '06, blond curls versus braids. Nowitzki had scored 12 straight points before Haslem baited him into an errant pass in the final minute. With 4.4 seconds left and the Mavericks trailing 88--86, Nowitzki caught an inbounds pass at the top of the arc, took two dribbles to the right of the free throw line, spun back toward the middle, pump-faked once and planted his left foot. Haslem, having studied Nowitzki's pump-fake on video, didn't flinch. He raised his arms and pressed his chest into Nowitzki's right shoulder. As Nowitzki elevated and released, Haslem held his breath and told himself: "It's an awkward shot, but awkward shots for everybody else are good shots for him." As the ball kicked off the back rim, Haslem exhaled, stalked to center court and threw a combination of punches at the air.
Nowitzki walked off with 34 points, facing a 2--1 series deficit. "Derrick Rose was unguardable all season," Nowitzki had said the day before, on the way from his English press briefing to his German press briefing. "Miami took away his efficiency in the playoffs. They are swarming me too." Nowitzki averaged 28.3 points through the first three Finals games despite a torn tendon in his left middle finger, suffered in the fourth quarter of Game 1. But he required an average of 20.3 shots and coughed up 10 turnovers, many of which resulted in aerial gymnastics on the other end. As Nowitzki watched the Heat tear downcourt repeatedly—two dribbles and a dunk—he fiddled with the hard splint over his finger. The unguardable man had met the impenetrable D.
Pat Riley coached the Knicks in the early 1990s, when they trapped ball handlers on almost every pick-and-roll, leaving screeners on the perimeter and daring them to fire. Riley came to Miami in '95 and altered his philosophy slightly soon thereafter. Instead of consistently trapping the pick-and-roll, Heat defenders showed hard but scrambled back to the screeners. "He changed because he saw all these big guys coming into the league who could shoot," says Jeff Van Gundy, who worked as an assistant coach for Riley with the Knicks, and is now an ESPN analyst. "One of those guys was Dirk Nowitzki."
No one spent more time studying Riley's new defense than Spoelstra, who was hired as the Heat's video coordinator in '95 and given a windowless office known as the Dungeon at old Miami Arena. When the team played on the West Coast, Spoelstra stayed in the Dungeon until 1 a.m. watching the game, then edited the tape until dawn and drove it to Miami International Airport in time for the first flight out. He used Delta Airlines's Dash service, which delivered the tape to the team on the same day.
"Erik lived in Miami but never saw the sun," says Chris Wallace, a former Heat executive who is now the Grizzlies' general manager. "He was learning Pat Riley's system. There was no doubt he would be defensive-oriented." Last season, Spoelstra's second as the Heat's coach, the team ranked second in the NBA in opposing field goal percentage and points allowed. With a front line featuring the ineffectual duo of Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley, Miami won 47 games and thus remained a relevant free-agent destination.