Wednesday April 16th, 2008

The MVP blues are gone. Dirk Nowitzki has been reunited with a Hall of Fame point guard, his Mavericks have reverted back to their original underdog persona, and no longer is Nowitzki asked to be all things in the Dallas offense.

"He makes the game a lot easier for me and Josh [Howard] again,'' Nowitzki said of Jason Kidd. "We've been pushing the ball, and I think my assists went way down when he came. Basically, I'm going back to what I was when Steve [Nash] was here, and that's catch-and-shoot. Scoring the ball. I guess that's good for me, that's what I do best.''

"He told me I'm bringing his game down,'' Kidd joked of Nowitzki's reduction in assists from 4.0 per game before the trade to 2.3 in the last 23 games. "I told him it's impossible for me to get triple-doubles anymore, because he's taking all my rebounds.''

Amid all of the stories developing over the last two months, the least noticed -- and arguably most dangerous -- is the reincarnation of Nowitzki as the league's toughest matchup. His ability to exploit mismatches had been eroding since Nash's 2004 departure, which forced Nowitzki to create his own offense while also making plays for others. The Mavs turned into a predictable half-court team that could be nullified by double-teaming Nowitzki and forcing the ball away from him.

Which is not to say that the previous style was disastrous: The Mavs had a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals, and they won a league-best 67 games last season as Nowitzki became MVP. Dallas and San Antonio are the only teams to have won 50 or more games each of the past eight seasons.

But the burdens on Nowitzki are apparent now that he has reverted to his old ways. Kidd is pushing the ball in transition and circulating it throughout the half court to keep defenses off-balance. The result is that Nowitzki is back to firing up those off-balance turnarounds and outrageous three-pointers in his natural rhythm, as opposed to trying to emulate Tim Duncan as a passer out of the high or low post. Nowitzki will benefit from developing those skills over the past two years, but it's his perimeter finishing that ultimately defines him while giving Dallas a chance to beat anyone in the playoffs.

"I haven't been myself?'' he asked with mock incredulity before conceding the issue. "I know that record-wise the numbers are not better [the Mavs were 35-18 before Kidd and 15-13 with him entering Wednesday's season finale], but I'm having fun. Sharing the ball with Kidd, and him pushing it up and having more of an open-court game again -- it's everything I could ask for.''

These positive vibes are hard to reconcile with the initial six weeks after the Kidd trade when the Mavs went 0-10 against teams with winning records. Kidd looks back on that stretch as a transition period that couldn't be avoided. He was brought in to overhaul the style of play, but he had to do so carefully in concert with coach Avery Johnson, Nowitzki, Howard and sixth man Jerry Stackhouse.

"You're trying to learn a new scheme and tendencies, and everything is new,'' Kidd said. "I didn't want to mess up anything. So you're trying to fit in, and when you try to do that you kind of become half the player because you're not reacting; you're thinking, and that's when trouble starts.''

Kidd credits a message from LeBron James with pushing him to be aggressive. "After about 10 games I got an e-mail -- because me and LeBron always e-mail -- and he asked me, When am I going to be me? So I got the message loud and clear. But I think coach, too, said, 'Just play. Guys will feed off you and we'll figure this out as we go.' "

To Johnson's credit, he simplified the offense -- "to keep Kidd mentally free out there'' -- and the result has been a half-dozen games of 30 or more assists. The Mavs' season high was 29 assists before Kidd's arrival.

"When you pick up a quarterback at the time of the season when we did, you've got to get a feel for his personality,'' Johnson said. "What works well for him, how to practice him, how to use him in games, and you've got to get other guys on board. You've got to get him [updated] in terms of terminology of what we say on pick-and-rolls: Some guys say 'show,' some teams say 'red,' some teams say 'blitz.' It's a grind-it-out situation that you have to endure night in and night out. It hasn't been the easiest job that I've had. It's been a different challenge for me.''

He feels better after watching the Mavs react to Nowitzki's frightening high-ankle sprain March 23. Howard averaged 30.8 points during Nowitzki's four-game absence as Kidd elevated the tempo. When it looked as if the Mavs might miss the playoffs, Nowitzki responded with two 32-point performances in wins at Phoenix and against Utah, the latter thanks to his last-second three.

Skepticism remains. The Mavs squandered back-to-back games at Portland and Seattle last weekend with porous defense, though they were without Stackhouse (strained right groin) for both games while working Howard (bruised right knee) back into the lineup for the latter evening. Can they achieve the consistency needed for a long playoff run?

On the whole, however, this is a dangerous team with newfound confidence. The Mavs rank No. 4 in field-goal defense and No. 6 in scoring defense. They have three All-Star-level starters in Nowitzki, Kidd and Howard, not to mention Jason Terry and Stackhouse.

"They have as good a chance as anybody,'' said Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who believes that Kidd has improved the Mavs' defense. "Two months is enough time to pull a team together.''

Though Nowitzki's ankle will remain stiff throughout the playoffs, he was outgoing and confident after each of the recent losses in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's always easier to play as an underdog; you get to play a little more free,'' he said. "I think anything right now is possible. A No. 8 team can beat No. 1 on the road.'' That he knows for sure.

"I'm really not worried about what the history says,'' he added. "It should be an interesting playoffs for everybody. You've got usually some teams that are good enough to just coast in the first round. But I think those days are over."

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