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Fran Blinebury

Dirk Nowitzki struggled with his shot in Game 3, but in crunch time he demanded (and received) the ball.
Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty Images

Durant can learn something from Nowitzki's late-game form

Posted May 22 2011 10:24AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- OK, so it wasn't the end of the world.

But it was the end of the game and the Mavericks and Thunder showed the clear difference between rapture and rupture.

On a night when Dirk Nowitzki would have had trouble pitching the ball onto the autobahn from the back bumper of a Mercedes-Benz, the Mavs knew exactly who they wanted behind the wheel when the ride got bumpy.

On an evening that saw Kevin Durant spend most of the time spinning his wheels, when they came to a fork in the road, the Thunder wouldn't even toss him the keys.

There was the bubbling lava start by everyone in a Dallas uniform that made them look like something that had been shot out of an Icelandic volcano and the shuffling, half-dead beginning by Oklahoma City that appeared to be lifted from a zombie movie.

There were the likes of Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler playing with inspiration for the Mavs and Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and James Harden playing with consternation for the Thunder.

There was, as usual, the niggling problem of trying to keep a lid on the boiling pot that is Russell Westbrook.

Yet in the end, when Dallas' 23-point lead was slipping away and the Thunder's historically inept 1-for-17 shooting performance behind the 3-point line was still in the making, it was about who was ready to lift his followers up and who would be remained earthbound.

Nowitzki was a miserable 3-for-12 from the field going into the fourth quarter and that didn't stop him for a nanosecond from calling for the ball and hitting three clutch buckets that kept his team from sinking.

Durant was a sickly 4-for-18 as the final period began, hit two quick shots and then became a wallflower when the game was hanging in the balance.

"Look, he's our guy," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Nowitzki. "In the fourth quarters he's going to touch the ball as frequently as we can get it to him. And if he misses a few shots, you know he's not going to get deterred, he's not going to get discouraged and he's got the kind of will he's going to keep going at it."

"Kevin, yeah, we could have probably done a better job," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "But he wasn't having the offensive game."

Surely, a lot of it has to do with the difference between being 32 and 22, between playing your 13th season in the NBA and your fourth. But it also has to do with an in-game temperament and personality that becomes small enough to fit into Durant's ubiquitous backpack.

For all the credit that he gets for being unfailingly polite and accommodating, there are times in games when Durant's got to have a bigger ego and demand a bigger say in the outcome.

When the rolling Thunder had come all the way back to make it an 84-78 game with three minutes left to play, Durant never touched the ball on four consecutive possessions. There was a missed 3 by Westbrook, a missed 3 by Daequan Cook, a turnover by Westbrook on a drive and a missed 3 by Harden.

"I felt that we got back into the game," Durant said. "We were running the offense pretty well. Everybody was touching the ball."

Everybody, that is, but him, the two-time NBA scoring leader.

Can you imagine the number of throats Michael Jordan might have wrung if he were left out of the final act of the play? Can't you smell the burning flesh left by Kobe Bryant's hot temper if he doesn't get a shot?

It is easy and partly correct to say that the point-to-point guard Westbrook gets tunnel-vision and only sees the basket in those situations.

But part of the responsibility and the blame for what happens also lies with Durant. While Nowitzki was bumped and banged and bruised and smothered and frustrated throughout the game by Ibaka and Nick Collison and the rest of the Thunder defense, he kept taking himself back into the lane to take more of the beating. Durant shot 0-for-8 on 3-pointers and played as if someone had told him that there hungry gators and crocs living inside the arc.

Just two nights after he rattled the rim and jarred the generally-held mild-mannered impression of himself with his Hammer-of-Thor slam dunk followed by some technical-earning trash talk, there was Durantula content to mostly tap-dance out around the perimeter and concede the difference-making shots to others.

That wasn't the way Nowitzki played and it's not how Durant will need to play if he's going to be the lead horse who pulls the Thunder wagon all the way to a championship, either this season or in the future. If, indeed, he and Westbrook are a pair of 22-year-olds learning to fit into their roles, there is a time for Durant to set himself up in the post, raise his long arm toward the rafters and let the world and his teammates know exactly who he is.

"We got some good looks," Durant said. "But as far as myself getting the ball, I think that Russ had it going and Daequan came in the game ... We can't just throw the ball to me in my spots and (have) me go to work."

Of course, it might not be the end of the world if they don't. But it's a way to get left behind.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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