Simply Mavelous! Leaving no shot untaken, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks swept the Timberwolves in a series that showed how much fun the playoffs can be

May 05, 2002

Who let these Dallas Mavericks into the NBA postseason anyway?
Don't they know that playoff games are supposed to be tortured
endeavors, tortoise-paced and coarse in execution, as
entertaining as an agricultural subcommittee hearing on C-SPAN?
At this stage of the game we're accustomed to
pound-it-into-the-paint muscle ball, and now along comes this
troupe of telegenic merengue dancers from Big D. While the
runnin' and gunnin' Sacramento Kings were laboring to get by the
Utah Jazz last week, the Mavs were maintaining the up-tempo
style they used during the regular season, laying an average of
112.7 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a sweep of their
first-round Western Conference series.

The Mavericks' 115-102 road victory in the Game 3 clincher on
Sunday left the T-Wolves to ponder their sixth straight
first-round exit while the Target Center maintenance staff
removed Dallas's skid marks from the court. Why didn't Minnesota
use its vaunted zone defense to thwart the Mavs? "Dallas shot
before we could get it set up," said T-Wolves coach Flip
Saunders. With such a helter-skelter, hurry-up offense, why
didn't the Mavericks commit more than 27 turnovers in three
games? "Because they shoot it too quick," said Minnesota guard
Chauncey Billups.

You think? Dallas led by 18 points early in the fourth quarter
yet refused to stop chucking, sometimes indiscriminately, thus
allowing Minnesota to get back into the game. With his team
clinging to a 106-101 lead and slightly less than two minutes
remaining, the Mavs' Steve Nash found himself steaming into the
frontcourt with the ball. Surely what any heady point guard
would do is pull up, run a set and milk the clock. Just not a
heady point guard who plays for the Mavs. Only a few seconds
into the possession Nash let fly a three. It connected, and that
was basically the ball game.

What were you thinking, Steve?

"I was thinking dagger," said Nash.

Here's another distinguishing Dallas moment, from the third
quarter of Sunday's game: Swingman Michael Finley rebounded a
Minnesota miss and headed upcourt. Nash, putative leader of the
fast break, called for the ball. Farther ahead Dirk Nowitzki,
who already had 31 points and would finish with a game-high 39,
was also requesting the rock. Sorry, fellas. Finley took it all
the way to the hole, drew a foul, and both Nash and Nowitzki
rushed over to slap him on the butt.

See, for a team that needs to apply constant pressure, Finley's
play was exactly right--as 7'1" Wang Zhizhi is learning. Wang
passed up a couple of open looks in Game 3, which prompted Nash
to confront him and frantically make a shooting motion with his
left hand. (Nash does not know how to say "Take the shot!" in
Chinese.)

It was all more than the T-Wolves could handle. Although they
didn't trumpet the fact before the series, Kevin Garnett & Co.
desperately wanted to face Dallas (instead of the San Antonio
Spurs) in the first round, theorizing that the Mavs were soft
defensively and bound to fizzle because of an overdependence on
perimeter shooting. But the Dallas D was good enough; Minnesota
had no luck working the ball inside. "We got swept," said a
downtrodden Garnett on Sunday, "by a team we thought we could
beat."

At 25, the 6'11" Garnett is a splendid player, routinely listed
as one of the five best in the league, which raises an
interesting question: Is he better than the 23-year-old
Nowitzki, who made his first All-Star team this season? Although
they weren't always going head-to-head, it's impossible to have
watched this series and not concluded that Nowitzki was at least
as good as KG, even taking into account the blond bomber's
superior supporting cast. Nowitzki scored 100 points in the
three games (to Garnett's 72), shot 52.6% from the floor, made 8
of his 11 three-point attempts and 32 of his 36 free throws. He
ignited Dallas in Game 3 by scoring in a variety of ways--a
loping runner, a jump shot off a pick-and-drift-to-the-corner, a
post-up jumper over veteran Sam Mitchell, a spin to the basket
off a lob entry from Nash and, of course, two conventional
threes. By the end of the first quarter Nowitzki had 17 points,
and Dallas had a 40-28 lead it never surrendered, no matter how
hard it tried.

In this his fourth NBA season Nowitzki has become that rare
7-footer to whom no one says, Get under the basket where you
belong, you big lug. Indiana Pacers scout Al Menendez compares
Nowitzki's face-the-basket talent with--gulp!--Larry Bird's.
Philadelphia 76ers swingman Aaron McKie says that Nowitzki has
changed his perception about how and where 7-footers should
play, calling him "a big man of the new millennium." Nowitzki
looks utterly at home on the perimeter, his jumper a thing of
beauty whether he unleashes it off the dribble or standing
still. Wurzburg, his Bavarian birthplace, is the town where
Wilhelm Rontgen discovered the X-ray in 1895. Nowitzki's
marksmanship would make Rontgen glow with pride.

Nowitzki has also augmented his hoops cred by becoming an
outstanding rebounder. He had 47 in the three games against
Minnesota (to Garnett's 56), all but five of the defensive
variety, since it's difficult to be active on the offensive
glass when you're flinging shots from 25 feet. Then, too,
Nowitzki has worked hard at overcoming his defensive
weaknesses--though in the future he might think twice about
fessing up to flopping, which he said helped him draw three
fouls on Garnett on Sunday--and his teammates appreciate his
toughness. He suffered a badly sprained left ankle that caused
him to miss four games near the end of the season, and he
tweaked it a couple of times during the Minnesota series.
Immediately after Game 2 in Dallas, Helmut Uhl, a reporter who
covers the Nowitzki beat for the Hamburg daily Bild espied the
Dirkster climbing gingerly out of a golf cart and limping into
the locker room, wincing all the while. Yet Nowitzki betrayed no
trace of pain when he addressed the media a few minutes later.
"He didn't want to show it," says Uhl. "That's the way he is. He
is a mental wonder."

Nowitzki also rarely shows his playful, outgoing side to the
public, but in the Mavericks' locker room he banters easily with
his teammates. "Michael Finley," he'll say, shaking his head
after Finley has torched the nets in a workout, "you practice so
bad today. What is wrong with you?" The Mavs have an unusual
hierarchy, their leadership coming from the triad of Finley,
Nash and Nowitzki. The credit for how well it works lies with
the first two. The 29-year-old Finley was the cornerstone of the
franchise before the others got there, and Nash is the one with
the ball and the tag of quarterback, yet both have dealt
superbly with Nowitzki's rapid ascendancy. So what if Dirk had
28 points by halftime on Sunday? They knew their time would come.

So it did. Finley was practically a one-man offense in the third
period, when he scored 13 of his 30 points, often initiating the
Dallas attack from the point forward position that coach Don
Nelson originated more than a decade ago with Paul Pressey in
Milwaukee. And there was Nash delivering that knockout trey in
the fourth period and finishing with 25 points. "You guard one,
you guard two," Garnett said softly after the game, "but the
third one makes you pay."

Nowitzki, who is destined to pass the late Drazen Petrovic as
the NBA's best-ever European import, is the beneficiary of what
Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson calls "the Jackie
Robinson years" of the first Europeans. "Guys like Drazen and
Sarunas Marciulionis took the razzing, took the beating, [put up
with] all the stereotypes of how they couldn't play in the
league," says Nelson, a European hoops expert of the first order
and the guy who urged his father to make a '98 draft-day deal
with the Bucks to get the rights to Nowitzki and Pat Garrity for
Robert (Tractor) Traylor. "So a guy like Dirk comes along and
doesn't have to deal with any of that. Our veterans accept him,
and that gives him instant confidence."

Indeed, though he still converses with Uhl in Frankisch, a
Bavarian dialect, Nowitzki seems totally Americanized. His
teammates love his confidence, a cocksure willingness to take
big shots that seems to have been born on a New York City
playground. Asked whether Nash's three-pointer was the right
shot at the time, and whether he, Nowitzki, should have run more
seconds off the clock before he launched a jumper (it was good)
on Dallas's next possession, Nowitzki's look was incredulous and
his answer decisive. "For us," he said, "those shots are money."

Everything in Dallas seems wide-open, from owner Mark Cuban's
pocketbook to Nelson's aggressive
shoot-first-ask-questions-later mind-set. Small wonder that
Nellie, during a lunch late in the regular season with good
buddy Tony La Russa, gave the St. Louis Cardinals' manager the
following advice: Use more hit-and-run. The whole scene is
enhanced by the multicultural flavor of the team, which includes
three foreign starters: the Wurzburg Wonder; Nash, a Canadian
citizen who was born to English parents in Johannesburg, South
Africa; and 6'8" defensive specialist Eduardo Najera, the only
native Chihuahuan in an NBA lineup. At halftime of Sunday's game
it was Najera who had the "trillionaire stat line"--a long list
of zeros after his 10 minutes played--as Nelson pointed out.
Embarrassed, Najera played an energetic second half and, right
before Nash's decisive three-pointer, dived for a loose ball and
got a timeout. The Mavs were buzzing about that after the game;
consequential defensive plays, you see, tend to stand out on
this team.

It's hard to predict whether Dallas's shotaholic madness will
continue to work against the Kings, who closed out their series
against the Jazz on Monday night. Disinclined as Sacramento will
be to slow down the game, a shootout of the first order is in
the offing. Let us rejoice at that prospect, for we have seen
far too much bumping and grinding. Just for the fun of it, what
we need now are a few more teams that think dagger.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER STYLE POINTS Dirk Nowitzki and the high-scoring MAVERICKS are the best show in basketball COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER AT WITZ' END Nowitzki had a huge hand in the Game 1 win, scoring 30 points and throwing himself in the path of Anthony Peeler. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER BIG D'S BIG O Scoring 100 points in the series from inside and out, Nowitzki confirmed his place among the league's elite. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER STEVIE WONDER Nash applied constant pressure from the point, whether passing or pulling up for a shot (but mostly the latter). COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER WORLD POWER Cuban's international troops include (from left to right) Mexico's Najera, China's Wang, Canada's Nash, France's Abdul-Wahad and Germany's Nowitzki. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER FORGET "READY" AND "AIM" Even wild heaves like Nick Van Exel's aren't out of bounds for the Mavs, who don't know how to play it safe.

Philly's McKie calls the 7-foot Nowitzki "a big man of the new
millennium."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)