Long Ranger With a locked-in Dirk Nowitzki scoring from all over the court and the toughness of a revamped defense, Dallas took command over Portland

May 04, 2003

Lest anyone forget, Dirk Nowitzki is not of this land--maybe not
of this earth. He is a 7-foot small forward from Germany who at
week's end was converting a breathtaking 65% of his shots from
beyond the three-point arc in the playoffs, which, for sake of
comparison, is a higher rate than Los Angeles Lakers center
Shaquille O'Neal was managing with his more conventional array
of dunks and put-backs around the basket. By doing so, Nowitzki
was carrying the Dallas Mavericks toward a likely Western
Conference semifinal reunion with the Sacramento Kings, who
breezed through Dallas in five games when the teams met in the
same round a year ago. ¶ This time, however, the Mavs promise
to offer a more engaging and enigmatic puzzle to the Kings,
mainly because of the emergence of the 24-year-old Nowitzki as
a go-to guy with the long-distance flair of a Larry Bird. Even
though the Portland Trail Blazers finally beat the Mavs at home
on Sunday, they'd already become the only club in this year's
first round to fall into a 3-0 hole (from which no NBA playoff
team has ever recovered). That was due largely to Nowitzki, who
had rattled them for a career-high 46 points in a 96-86 Game 1
win at Dallas and 42 in the Mavs' 115-103 Game 3 victory at
Portland, during which he put a stranglehold on the series with
a 16-point eruption in the fourth quarter. "Every championship
team has a guy who dominates throughout the playoffs," says
Dallas guard and co-captain Michael Finley. "For us, Dirk is
that guy."

Last year Dallas seemed too balanced for its own good: Because
the Mavs never knew if it was going to be Finley, Nowitzki or
point guard Steve Nash who would lead the team on any given
night, the job sometimes seemed like a pop fly that falls at the
feet of three indecisive infielders. "Having Dirk emerge gives us
clarity," says Nash. Indeed, everyone in the Mavs' locker room
acknowledges that Nowitzki is their No. 1 option except for
Nowitzki, who humbly refuses to agree with Mavericks owner Mark
Cuban that "this is now Dirk's team." Responds Nowitzki, "I
wouldn't say it's my team at all. We still have a lot of
options."

But don't be deceived by his modesty. "He reminds me of Tim
Duncan a little bit," says Mavs reserve point guard Avery
Johnson, referring to his teammate on the 1999 champion San
Antonio Spurs. "Dirk starts to mumble a lot in the fourth quarter
when he goes up and down the court a couple of times and he
hasn't gotten the ball. He's not doing it in a selfish way; he's
just saying, 'I can get us something nice.'"

While six Mavs averaged at least 9.0 points in the first four
games against Portland, the main plotline always involved
Nowitzki. Though Dallas won a club-record 60 regular-season
games, the Mavericks' playoff chances were downgraded after they
lost eight of 17 near the end of the season to hand over the top
spot in the West to the Spurs. But for the postseason Dallas
coach Don Nelson changed his rotation, shifting Nowitzki from
power forward to small forward, gaining rebounding and shot
blocking from a tall-ball front line that often includes 7'6"
center Shawn Bradley and 6'11" forward-center Raef LaFrentz.
Nowitzki had struggled when Nellie experimented with him at small
forward early in the season, but his low-post moves and passing
out of the double team have improved enough for him to move
inside and exploit mismatches against smaller defenders. "Dirk
eventually will make the [permanent] move to small forward,"
Nelson predicts. "If he can learn to shoot a jump hook, we'll
have a dominant low-post guy as a small forward and you'll see
him become one of the top five players in the league."

In the meantime Nowitzki's dramatic flair in the open court is
like something from a production of Peter Pan, as he dribbles
full speed to the three-point line before pulling up as if
hoisted by cables, his legs kicking out in midair for balance
while he smoothly releases his jumper. Nowitzki had fallen into a
minor shooting slump at the end of the regular season but
rediscovered his stroke last week with the help of his longtime
coach-manager, Holger Geschwindner, who arrived from Germany two
days before the playoffs and has been reminding Nowitzki on a
daily basis to keep his fingers spread and extend his shooting
elbow. "We've been together for six years, and he sees the
smallest mistakes that I make," says Nowitzki, whose 53.3%
shooting from the field in the first four games against Portland
was a 7.0% hike from the regular season.

Though Nowitzki produced 26 points and 11 rebounds in three
quarters of Game 4, the Mavs were blown out 98-79 to send the
series back to Dallas for Wednesday's Game 5. Point guard Nick
Van Exel, Nash and Finley were averaging a combined 37.2 points
while shooting a collective 40.8%, which may be acceptable
against the self-destructive Blazers but surely won't do against
deep and focused Sacramento. These Mavs, though, seem to have
more backbone than the club the Kings bounced last season. When
Portland forced them to play to a slower, postseason pace, the
Mavs beat the Blazers at their own game--a promising sign that
Dallas has learned to get its trademark quick shots even while
playing the half-court game that usually prevails during the
playoffs. The Mavs have also developed an understanding of how
and when to ratchet up their defense, as they did during the
fourth quarter of Game 3, when their variations of the 2-3 zone
and helping man-to-man held the Blazers to 33.3% shooting.

Dallas's iron man is the lean, rawboned Nowitzki, who played all
but two minutes of the first three games against Portland but
refused to admit to fatigue. "I'm 24 years old, I'm not going to
be tired now," Nowitzki said after Sunday's game. He also noted
his teammates' resolve: "You should have been in our locker room
after this game. Everyone was staring into space, and it looked
like we'd lost the series."

Take note, C-Webb and Vlade: These are not your soft Mavericks of
years past.

For the latest NBA news plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to
si.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JON FERREY/GETTY IMAGES SMOKIN' Driving past the Blazers when he wasn't firing from outside, Nowitzki hit 15 of 20 shots from the field in Game 3.

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)