THEY APPEAR to bethe yin and yang of 7-foot superstars. One spent four years methodically honinghis skills at Wake Forest; the other impulsively jumped from W√ºrzburg, Germany,to the NBA as a 20-year-old. One pounds away with his back to the basket deepin the coal mines of the paint; the other prefers to flick jumpers from theplayground beyond the three-point line. But during the much-anticipated WesternConference semifinal between the Spurs and the Mavericks, this much will becomeclear: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have more in common than it would seem.
Take thesimilarities in their personalities--which Nowitzki, at first, is in no rush toaccept. "Are you saying I'm boring?" he asks. Boring? No, though it'strue that neither Duncan nor Nowitzki courts attention. Humble, demanding,tough on themselves? Definitely. "I love the way he approacheseverything," says Nowitzki of Duncan. "I like how he always plays hurt,how he's always out there to help his team whether he's 100 percent ornot."
"Both are guyswho just love to work hard," says Dallas coach Avery Johnson, who wasDuncan's point guard for four years. "They're not in-your-face guys, andthey like to lead by example. Sometimes the way they lead has beenmisinterpreted that they don't care."
The champion Spurshave never been more threatened by their intrastate rival, thanks largely tothe insights that Johnson culled from his mentor, San Antonio coach GreggPopovich, and has disseminated throughout the Dallas organization. "Pop andAvery are obviously similar in many ways," says Mavs owner Mark Cuban."We have tried to take the best of what Avery sees in the Spurs and bringsome added value." Still, despite a 60-win season, in which they splittheir season series with the Spurs and the Pistons, the Mavs have beendismissed as contenders because of their reliance on Nowitzki. Critics believehe's too passive to inspire his team--the same knock that the Spurs' star putto rest by winning two of the last three titles.
Upon replacing DonNelson in March 2005, Johnson set about molding Nowitzki in the image ofDuncan, making the same demands--with the same forcefulness--that Popovichmakes of his eight-time All-Star. While retaining Nowitzki's value as the NBA'stop mismatch-maker on the perimeter, Johnson made him fulfill more of thetraditional duties of a 7-footer. "Avery gave him this whole menu,"says Mavericks president Donnie Nelson. "He said, 'I want you to be anoffensive rebounder; I don't want you just standing out by the three-pointline; I want you to be in and around the paint a lot offensively anddefensively; and oh, by the way, you need to keep up the defensive rebounding.And I want you to block shots and take charges, and I want you to betougher.'"
Nowitzki initiallystruggled with the workload, breaking 30 points only once in last year'spostseason, when Dallas lost in the second round to the Suns. He averaged 31.3points in the Mavs' first-round sweep of the Grizzlies, but in Sunday's openerat San Antonio he faced a much sterner test, missing 12 of his 20 shots as6'7" Bruce Bowen consistently pushed him out of the high post with whatJohnson called "a bear hug defense." "I know I'm not going to score35 [per game] in this series," Nowitzki said after struggling for 20."Not even on the screen-and-roll are they coming off me now. I've just gotto make shots off the dribble."
Which elevates theimportance of his teammates, who should be well prepared for their roles. Inmuch the same way that Johnson has cited Duncan as a model for Nowitzki, he hasused the Spurs as a template for the Mavs--starting with making defense hisplayers' primary concern. Johnson instituted San Antonio's principle of forcingthe ball out of the paint and to the baseline. Offensively, Dallas will stillfast-break when possible, but Johnson doesn't mind chewing up the shot clock toforce the opponent to work harder, another Spurs precept. "Nellie did agreat job turning things around, but I don't know he completely believed wecould win a championship with the team we have," says Cuban. "Averymade it clear that we could and put in the system and culture to set us on thatpath."
Now Dallas has achance to realize Johnson's vision. Will Nowitzki overtake Duncan? Whosedefense will prove more impenetrable? For all the likenesses between the twoteams, however, it's clear that the Mavericks are tired of hearing about theway they do business in San Antonio. "They ain't the pioneers ofbasketball," says sixth man Jerry Stackhouse. "Winning basketballdidn't start with Popovich." That may be Johnson's biggest gift to hisplayers: They no longer think they're inferior.