Posted May 18 2011 1:50PM
DALLAS -- One by one, they tried to frame what they'd seen in some sort of reasonable context. The sought some theoretical or logical construct that would explain how Dirk Nowitzki was able to do the things he did without any regard for the human interference the Oklahoma City Thunder offered.
And one by one they failed, just as those defenders did to interrupt Nowitzki's flow during his brilliant Game 1 performance in these Western Conference finals -- and just so we're clear about how truly brilliant he was, the ball left Nowtizki's hands 39 times headed for the rim and found the bottom of the net a staggering 36 times.
The 48 points on 15 shots, the 24 makes on 24 attempts from the free throw line, the hockey passes on the interior that helped set up shot after shot for his teammates and the fiery leadership that he wears like body armor in his second decade in the league, it was all on display as the Mavericks won a franchise-record seventh straight game in this postseason.
How is it possible that Nowitzki seems to get better with age in a game that usually works the other way around? Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd, another future Hall of Famer that's reinvented himself (as a dead eye 3-point shooter) in the second half of his career, suggested that it's not nearly as shocking to see a player age like fine wine.
"I'm a big fan of that," Kidd said, cracking up the crowd surrounding his locker after that Game 1 win. "As you get older you see things a little bit clearer. Things slow down and you try not to waste energy. But the big thing is he is playing at such a high level. He's one of those rare players that can get better as he gets older because he can extend the defense, he can shoot the [3-pointer] and he sets picks so his teammates can get open."
That ability set the table for his teammates, Kidd said, is easily the Nowitzki's greatest asset these days.
"We've always believed we're not a on-man show," he continued. "We might play through Dirk and Dirk finds guys for open shots and we have to be able to knock those down. And that's the luxury of this team ... it's not just one guy. You saw JJ [Barea] come off the bench and give us 21 points and Jet [Jason Terry] gave us 24 more. It's not just the Dirk show. He touches the ball a lot but I think he's starting to get a little more comfortable with his teammates in the sense of sharing the ball. But when he gets in that zone, you have to get him the ball so he can make plays."
Nowitzki's work in that "zone" in Game 1 is what worries Thunder coach Scott Brooks. Tuesday morning he warned Serge Ibaka -- and anyone else that would have to deal with Nowitzki -- not to get discouraged if the 7-footer made shots. It seemed like sound advice before lunch. Then Nowitzki drained 10 of his first 11 shots and was flawless from the free throw line.
"When I said that," Brooks said. "I didn't think he was going to make as many shots. But Dirk, I have a lot of respect for him. The guy comes back every year and continues to improve and get better. He put our bigs in some foul trouble early, and hopefully we do a better job of guarding him, guarding him without fouling, which is tough to do. Like I said, he's one of the best players at that spot all time."
Nowitzki is one of the best of all time with one of the most impossible arsenals of offensive moves to work with. He's got the one-legged step-back jumper, the baseline fade away off the glass, the spot-up jumper from anywhere within the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex and the court awareness that all the greats possess, just to name a few.
Brooks said they'd make the proper adjustments and be ready to go for Game 2 Thursday, as if there is some magic formula that can be hatched in the one day between games in this series. We already know that there isn't one man that can do the job. The Thunder tried them all in Game 1 and came up empty.
"Well, just to keep it very general and to myself, we just can't foul him as many times," Brooks said when pressed about his Game 2 strategy. "Twenty-four free throws ... that's a lot of free throws. But he earned them. We fouled him. We have to do a better job of guarding him. Hopefully, he missed a shot every now and then. But he had a rhythm. He had a rhythm that I don't know if the ball even hit the rim."
Hoping for a missed shot is probably the most reasonable game plan for the Thunder.
As both the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers have found out in this postseason, sticky defense and constant contact don't seem to bother Dirk like it did in his younger days. He won't be rattled by smaller, active defenders the way he was in 2007, when the Golden State Warriors upset the No. 1 seeded Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs that year.
And if you attempt to force the ball out of his hands with double teams he'll continue to find Terry, Barea and the other guys that have continued to riddle opposing teams that don't believe in the Mavericks' supporting cast the way Nowitzki does.
"We're a good team if everybody is playing well and attacking from all angles, Nowitzki said. "We're tough to beat. And that's how we've been winning all season long. We've got to play solid defense, rebound the ball and offensively share the ball. We have to make shots and play off of each other."
Or they can just keep playing off of Nowitzki, which would certainly seem like the logical thing to do.
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