Tuesday January 15th, 2008

The game's most expressive jump shooter is getting his legs back under him. He's curling in those 18-footers like a porpoise on the back flip. He's falling away, he's facing up with authority, he's going baseline in a twirl to see the ball landing soft as a balloon.

The passive aggression of Dirk Nowitzki is back on display: The harder he plays, the less the net moves.

"Lately he's making shots the way Dirk's always made shots,'' SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "He presents as many different looks as any player in the league.''

Nowitzki has led Dallas in scoring in 12 of its last 13 games -- the Mavericks are 10-3 in that stretch to vault back near the top of the Western Conference standings -- but the reigning MVP's scoring (22.2 points), shooting (48 percent) and rebounding (8.4) remain down from last year as a result of his poor start to the season. Through Dec. 15, Nowitzki had been his team's leading scorer in only seven of 25 games, and he looked like he was in premature decline. In fact, he was still hung over from the binge of double teams and scrambling defenses inflicted by the Warriors during their unprecedented first-round upset of the top-seeded Mavericks last May.

"Even when I had the good shots, I wasn't knocking them down because I had no rhythm in the games,'' Nowitzki said. "I had no confidence.''

He played those opening six weeks as if he were still trying to beat the Warriors. He shifted away from his areas of strength on the perimeter and into the low post as if the Warriors were forcing him down there. Instead of splitting or shooting over the double teams, he passed out of them as he had tried to do in the playoffs last spring. It looked as if he was still doing penance.

In truth, he was forcing himself to learn how to overcome the same defenses next time around.

"Some nights some teams are playing small lineups again, and I think we've kind of solved that problem,'' Nowitzki said. "We had a lot of problems in zone defenses -- I think we had shots in the playoffs, we just couldn't knock them down. So we did some stuff there to get better. Whatever the opponents are going to throw at us, we've got to be that good a team that we can react. If they double-team me a lot like they did in the playoffs, we've got to play off each other and knock our shots down and just play on a high level together.''

"We wanted him to work on his passing early in the season,'' Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. "Teams forced him to work on his passing with the double and triple teams, and because of that we loosened some teams up and now they're playing him a little bit more single coverage. But at the same time, if he's getting the hard double team, he's making the right passes.

"It's something that he needs to work on and he's working on it, and recently he's not settling into getting double-teamed as much and he's being a little more aggressive, and it really bodes well for our team.''

Yet Nowitzki didn't enjoy the process. "I still could have been more aggressive at times,'' he said. "Sometimes I was just waiting on the double teams; sometimes I just have to make stuff happen. It was a little bit of everything. You need time to work on passing and trying to get the team involved, but on the other hand I had to find a good mix, and early on I wasn't finding that mix the way I wanted to. But lately it's been working out.''

No kidding. With Eddie Jones now in the starting lineup and Brandon Bass established as a big low-post forward off the bench, the 26-12 Mavericks look more talented and experienced than their teams that reached the 2006 NBA Finals and won a league-leading 67 games last season. But here's the question that can't be answered until April: Have their postseason lapses weakened their confidence, or will their response be to play tougher and meaner under pressure?

"I wish we could look in the future and say it definitely was the experience that we needed,'' Nowitzki said. "Every great team or good team has to go through downs to go back up. The Finals loss was tough, last year's loss was tough. But I think we can recover.''

One benefit of Nowitzki's lingering pain was the growth of forward Josh Howard, who emerged as the Mavericks' leading scorer in the opening weeks. Dallas needs Howard to be an All-Star threat as a secondary scorer to complement Nowitzki, and he has responded by improving his ball-handling while hitting career highs in scoring (20.4 points) and shooting (47.5 percent, tied for his personal best set in 2004-05).

"There's nothing out there that he can't do now -- he can shoot threes, he's still a great slasher, he's posting up more now and we all know what he brings defensively for us,'' Nowitzki said. "Sometimes early in November I was getting caught watching him. But if we're both in attack mode and playing well together, I think we're a different animal.''

Given that he is 29 and Howard is 27, Nowitzki refuses to approach this season as the Mavs' last chance at a title.

"Everybody keeps talking that the window is closing,'' he said. "I don't look at any windows really. I see this year as our year, and if we don't make it this year, we'll go from there. We'll look at that window again next year, so I don't look past this year -- this is what we're working on for so long, and hopefully we can get better from month to month.

"I think last year we peaked a little early, and once the playoffs came, we weren't on top of our games anymore. So hopefully we'll get better, get better, and be the best team we can be in the playoffs. Hopefully we'll be all right.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.