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Steve Aschburner

Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki
Scoring machine Dirk Nowitzki is the latest big-man challenge for Chris Bosh.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

Versatile Nowitzki draws all kinds of defensive tactics


Posted May 30 2011 8:28PM

MIAMI -- Brian Cardinal plays against Dirk Nowitzki all the time, seeing as how they are Dallas Mavericks teammates who share a position and a practice floor all season long.

So if anyone should know how to play defense against the Mavericks' remarkable 7-foot sharpshooter, it is Cardinal. And swell guy that he is, he even shares his strategy on the eve of the 2011 NBA Finals. Just in case, you know, the Miami Heat wanted to go to school on his daily ordeal.

"I try to go with the karate chop, and that generally works," Cardinal said, tongue in cheek. "It's really a combination. Hopefully he didn't sleep well the night before. Then I try to go with the karate-chop technique. But he knows that's coming, for sure."

Nowitzki's favorite and most dangerous offensive spots on the court? Cardinal shared those too.

"From end line to end line and from sideline to sideline," the veteran Dallas backup said. "Generally, when he has the ball, he's a threat.

"There's times, he makes shots and you're just kind of scratching your head like, 'Holy smokes!' There's nothing you can do. All you can do is try to take it out on him, go back at him at the other end. ... He's just ridiculously talented."

Nowitzki's talents, on display for 13 NBA seasons and ridiculously so through three rounds of the 2011 playoffs, are on South Beach now right alongside the talents of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat. They were, understandably, Topic A as both the Heat and the Mavs readied themselves for Game 1 of the Finals Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

As with most star players and top scorers, Miami's approach to coping with Nowitzki will be similar to what Dallas will try to do against James, Wade and Chris Bosh, and not unlike what both teams strove to do in previous rounds against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce or LaMarcus Aldridge: Make things tough. Beat them to their spots. Send help as needed. Contest shots.

It's just that Nowitzki has seen a lifetime of those tactics. He can laugh at them like a Bond villain, amused at defenders' futile creativity or dogged lack of success. This is an old NBA cat-and-mouse game, and there's no dispute over which one is the tall, blond German feline.

"They've tried everything," Mavericks guard J.J. Barea said of opponents' methods of coping/surviving vs. Nowitzki. "They've trapped him. They've fronted him. They come from the baseline on him. They come from the top. I've seen it all. But he's seen it all too, and he's ready for everything."

Bosh, as Miami's counterpart in the matchups, is likely to guard Nowitzki plenty for however long the Finals lasts. The Heat power forward grew up in Dallas and had seen Nowitzki develop from a rookie (when Bosh was a freshman) into an All-Star (by the time Bosh graduated from Lincoln High). The Mavs' star is the latest big-man challenge for Bosh in a spring filled with them, including Philadelphia's Elton Brand, Boston's Kevin Garnett and Chicago's Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah.

But Bosh will get both breathers and help. Heat reserve Udonis Haslem is a grittier, more dedicated defender than Bosh and has the resume to suggest some success: In the 2006 Finals between these franchises, Haslem had some of the responsibility for defending Nowitzki (with Jason Terry and Wade, they're the only players back from that Heat-Mavs championship series). And Nowitzki was held to 22.8 points per game on 39 percent shooting in the six games.

Then there is James, who surely will spend some time shadowing Nowitzki, even if it is limited to late-game, close-score situations. The mere fact that James is capable of the task, on the heels of covering Rose, Chicago's explosive point guard, in the round just completed speaks to his versatility. That's impressive stuff, the sort of thing Scottie Pippen must have been talking about.

Others might take their turns in the tank against Nowitzki, too, and live to talk about it. Or, y ou know, not. Which might be why so many folks were talking Monday about defending Dirk:

Bosh, on the basics: "Just stay between him and the basket. Try to keep him out of the paint. Make him work for every shot. That's really it. And not get too rattled if he does make shots. He might hit 20 or 30 points, but if all of them are contested... They run their offense through him. It will be very, very -- almost impossible -- to stop him completely. We're not trying to do that. We're trying to make it as tough as possible."

Haslem on the Heat's current preparation for Nowitzki: "Just watching a lot of film. Obviously going over defensive schemes for how we're going to do it. Practice. But there are going to be five guys on the ball. It's going to be, whoever's guarding him and the other four guys at attention. Switch up, throw different looks at him, different guys. Bron might even guard him, Dwyane might guard him. It's not just going to be 'Throw the ball to Dirk and UD, chase him down.' "

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, on cooking up something special for Nowitzki now: "We are an aggressive, attacking, physical defensive team by nature. We've built up six months of those habits. If we tried to invent something right now, it would be very tough to do in two or three days, and then you probably would lose a lot of the instincts that you have."

Terry on unconventional schemes used against Nowitzki: "San Antonio does the best job I've ever seen. They would double-team him from underneath the basket. Which meant 'You better throw it to your big man, because we really don't care.' No one ever does that and has never done it since, but Gregg Popovich used that strategy."

Bosh, on why double-teams get dicey: "He's so unselfish. He makes the right plays and passes to the right teammates. They have shooters out there who are ready to knock 'em down. So when you have a good player like that and as soon as you rotate, he swings the ball around, that makes the rotations a little tougher."

Haslem on James' expected moments locked in against Nowitzki: "You've got a guy who can guard possibly five positions if you need him to. There's not too many guys who can do that."

James on that: "I'm looking forward to guarding anybody. I don't care about guarding anybody. I mean, that's what I do. I'm a defensive guy. I'm not sitting up here and saying I can stop Dirk. I don't think no one can single handedly stop Dirk. He's a shot maker. One of the best shot makers we've ever had in this league."

Terry on that: "Hopefully they put Mike Bibby on him. That would be a lot of fun."

Heat center Joel Anthony, comparing Nowitzki's deadly step-back jump shot to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's legendary sky hook: "It's right up there. That's one of the shots you just have to live with when he takes it. You understand no matter how well you time it, there's no way you can block it. There's no way you're going to get to it."

Bosh, on the Heat's work against Nowitzki early in the regular season (two games, 24.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 38.6 FG percentage, 1-of-9 from the arc): "Since December, it's a different intensity, of course. He's picked up his play and he's had a fantastic season."

Haslem on reaching back even further to the 2006 Finals: "He's not the same player he was. The success I had in '06, there's no guarantee I'm going to have that same success this series. I mean, he's added so much to his game. All-around. He's putting it on the floor better. He's posting up more. He's doing so many more things than he did in '06."

Dallas defensive ace Corey Brewer on dealing with Dirk: "Everybody tries to be so physical with him. But that just plays into his game. Once he gets into your body, he just shoots off one leg -- the shots he shoots are so amazing."

Bosh on cribbing tips from a guy like Erick Dampier, formerly of the Mavericks: "We have our ways. If you have an ex-teammate or something, believe me, we're talking about it. We're talking about tendencies. We want to know what makes him tick. Any advantage, you want to make sure you can get it."

Cardinal, on seeing the same sort of defensive focus when he subs in for Nowitzki: "Oh geez, no. I'd love to lie to you and say, 'Hell yes, they run three guys at me!' No. I do some of the things that he does, but not nearly as well as he does."

Just in case anyone gets confused, Nowitzki is the guy with the accent and the mop of golden hair, just 31 points away from passing Julius Erving for 17th place on the all-time playoff scoring list. Cardinal is, well, none of that.

Miami won't be confused.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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