Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The man continues to raise his bar of expectations.
In fact, Scotty Brooks, the Head Coach of Oklahoma City, shook his head in disbelief after the game as he marveled at the performance and talked about how the man still gets better every year.
This Dirk is the best Dirk we have ever seen. And we have seen some very good versions of Dirk Nowitzki since he was drafted in 1998.
We have seen all sorts of stages of his development and many nights where the league knew there was no stopping a 7-footer with that offensive arsenal.
We have seen the MVP Award, the 2006 performances that seemed as good as it gets, and the All-NBA Teams.
And, I am telling you - this is better than all of them. This Dirk; The 2011 version, who had it suggested that his window may no longer be open for NBA Title consideration is quite clearly at the very peak of his career.
Just ask Portland. Or Los Angeles. And, 1 game into a series with the young Thunder, I believe Oklahoma City is now aware of the challenges in front of them after his absurd 48 point performance that required a comically efficient 15 Field Goal attempts to accomplish.
He has always scored and yes, he has always done many things at an "All-NBA Level". But, what we are seeing here is a ruthless, merciless performance that suggests that there is no lip service in his claims that nothing matters but getting 7 more wins.
48 points is very impressive. But, the demoralizing manner in which he scored them is what takes this to the next level. Time after time on Tuesday in front of the packed house in Dallas, he stopped near the blocks on the baseline and called for the ball. He punished any of the 4 or 5 Thunder players who tried to slow him down and easily put pretty much the entire front line into foul trouble. His array of moves were put into motion with such precision and ease that he had the game in the palm of his hand from the opening tip.
Oklahoma City were pretty strict in their ideas for guarding him. They showed a great deal of stubborn belief in their ability to not need to send a double team his way; partially due to the fact that this is how they moved past Zach Randolph in the previous round and partially due to the fact that they watched Dirk absolutely demoralize and destroy the Lakers defense when Los Angeles thought they would run a 2nd man at Nowitzki.
So, they were steadfast in their efforts. Serge Ibaka was first. Then Kendrick Perkins for small doses. Then Nick Collison took his turns. Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Durant even tried. 5 guys varying in skill sets and physical tools all tried to deal with Dirk on the baseline throughout his 41 minutes of game action. It didn't go well for them.
He would draw fouls on many occasions. He would spend most of the night at the free throw line. And then, when you would not foul him, he would simply splash in majestic jumper after majestic jumper with nothing more than a swish and a reaction from the 20,911 who adored his every move.
There has been no "settle" in his 2011 offensive game. It is surely a favorite past-time these days in this city to debate when Dirk turned the corner. Some even suggest that he has "always been this great". If I were to pinpoint it exactly, it seemed the 2009 playoffs when Dallas took out San Antonio before losing to Denver. Whatever the case, he is a player who is so relentless and so determined in the playoffs that if you squint, you can actually see the Nowitzki fairy tale ending the way any Dallas fan would hope.
It does require saying that his teammates are playing a huge role in all of this. He now has the faith to pass out of tough situations because he does believe that Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, or JJ Barea can make the enemy pay if they are left open in a double team situation on Dirk. If there is no conversion on their part, then you understand a reluctance for Dirk to make the extra pass and the reluctance of the opponent to double team because they will be made to pay a tremendous toll.
But, it had to start with him buying in. The star had to alter his game. Stand out at the 3-point line and arc in beautiful triples? He did not attempt even one long range bomb on Tuesday. He also hardly missed a shot all night. 48 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocked shots. And every time he was given the ball he delivered. Add his shots and his free throws together and Dirk attempted to score 39 times in Game 1, and 36 of those 39 shots went through the hoop. That is a number that was enough to make you remember Bill Walton's performance for UCLA against Memphis State in the 1973 NCAA Final.
He knows what the opponent has no answer for. And repeatedly, he would call for the ball on the right baseline and begin to demolish yet again. Then, as the game was winding down and Oklahoma City was coming back, he went back to his familiar high post spot up near the top of the circle. He would watch the shot clock tick down. He was calm and he was calculated. He would run the clock down inside :10 and then start his move. On this occasion, the Thunder were not going to sit there and let him destroy Ibaka again. The double team came, and Nowitzki continued his chess master's lesson by finding Jason Terry in the corner for an open 3. Swish. Ball game.
We are seeing the next level. Shame on any of us who thought the window had closed. He is showing us that he is forcing it open until further notice. What a pleasure to behold.
Other thoughts and observations from a Game 1 victory at the AAC:
* Lost in all of the love for Dirk's night should not be the performance of JJ Barea. A player who certainly was not appreciated locally in many corners until he brought the Lakers to their knees in several games in the last round, Barea again showed that there is not much of an answer for his game, either. Again in the 4th Quarter, Barea led the Mavericks in points. 12 points in 7 minutes for the Quarter, and 21 points in 16 minutes for the game. His game fits so perfectly with the Mavericks roster because he slices and dices and if you leave him for a second, you are leaving a shooter open. The lineup consists of JJ, a big man (either Chandler or Haywood) and then 3 shooters from a group of Terry, Kidd, Stojakovic, Nowitzki, and Stevenson. Leave any of them open and he kicks. Don't leave any of them and JJ takes it all the way to the rim. This offense is pretty special with Barea at the wheel. Again, you can only use him in doses, but it fits like a hand in a glove with the roster they roll out right now. And we have yet to see a defense that has the right answer for the Mavericks and their proper spacing. And if he is going to hit his 3's? Well, then forget it. Then, you can no longer go underneath the screens.
* 28 fouls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. 55 fouls called in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Having watched both games, I might argue that both games seemed very physical. So, why did one set of officials "let them play" and the other game featured 79 free throws? Let's ask Joey Crawford and the gang. I felt that the parade to the free throw line was ridiculous and hopefully not a sign of things to come. We need more consistency in officiating, but I suppose that is something many of us have been saying for about 30 years now. It is what it is. Surely, it helps Nowitzki's and Kevin Durant's efforts to be protected against bumps and hand checks, but at some point, it would be nice if the game could find a flow. Constant whistles do not allow for that.
* There may not be any way to slow down Durant for the Mavericks. They also took many turns in trying to figure out a way to keep him from firing in another easy looking release jump shot from somewhere inside 30 feet. He is another physical marvel and given that he is 22 years old, we should get used to seeing his great performances this time of year, I suspect. I have no idea how that frame can sustain the physical beating from the NBA, but he makes it look easy. It is a rare night when 40 points is not enough to capture headlines, but you would be foolish to not suspect he will win a game or two in this series all by himself.
* It took 70 seconds of this 7 game series for Tyson Chandler and Kendrick Perkins to begin their showdown. I suspect that we will all be wildly entertained as those two warriors attempt to lay claim on the paint and the rim. It would be quite foolish to forget Perkins' playoff resume and his tough-guy persona is no act. Chandler, meanwhile, is the driving emotional force of this team, and 3 points and 8 rebounds may not jump off the page, but if you watch the game you see how important he is to the defense and overall swagger of the Mavericks. He challenges every shot and as awesome as that can be, you would like to recommend he picks his spots a bit more because he seems to be in foul trouble every single game. The good news is that unlike Erick Dampier and his consistent 4-fouls-before-the-4th-Quarter performances, you can see some very obvious byproducts of Chandler's rim ownership and intimidation. He changes the game.
* From a Thunder perspective, they are within 5 points late in the game with very little contribution from Russell Westbrook (3 for 15 from the field) and James Harden. Both are substantial threats to steal games with a phenomenal performance so you can understand some level of optimism for Game 2. Durant is going to be Durant, but they can really attack the Mavericks with those other two scoring threats. Game 1 was not their best showing, but it is a long series.
The Mavericks used their 9 day rest to look ready to roll last night. The Thunder looked like their were moments of fatigue and frustration at not being able to slow down Nowitzki and the gang. But, Oklahoma City's big goal in the early trip in this series is to get a split - something they will attempt to accomplish on Thursday.
If Dallas can continue to get a huge advantage from their bench scoring and if they can continue to ride on the back of their superstar, this series should go according to plan. But, the teams are just breaking a sweat.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks' "Redemption Tour" of 2011 is rolling right along. 9 playoff wins are in the bag and this team has not lost a game since April 23rd.
The Scoreboard showed a video last night that offered the message that "This Year is Different". It sure feels that way.