With their playoff hopes on the line and a season-worst funk upon them, the Dallas Mavericks needed vintage Dirk Nowitzki.
Vintage Dirk Nowitzki showed up.
Losers of seven of eight and embroiled in a tight fight for playoff positioning, the Mavs badly needed a win on Sunday night when they hosted fellow playoff hopeful Portland on Sunday. It was as must-win as a game in March can get, and their ageless superstar responded to the call with an ageless performance. Nowitzki dropped 40 points, joining Michael Jordan and Karl Malone as the only players this century to go for 40 at age 37 or after. At one point he scored eight straight overtime points, even striking a pose after a signature dagger three.
But Dirk’s age-defying brilliance wasn’t just a one-night thing. He has been tremendous for the last couple of weeks. In the last eight Maverick outings, Nowitzki has averaged 27 points on 54 percent shooting and 42 percent from deep.
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For a while now, head coach Rick Carlisle has been scheming based on the 13-time All-Star’s gravity more than his actual scoring. They’re a team that’s built for 24 non-Dirk three attempts per game and smart, quick passing that picks apart defenses still concerned about one of the game’s best pure shooters.
Lately, though, they’ve needed Dirk to be less of a vague threat and more directly involved. It’s not that the Mavericks have a bad roster; their mob of rotation-quality perimeter players alone gives Carlisle plenty to work with. But at the end of the day, it’s mostly the smoke-and-mirror effect of Rick’s systemic wizardry that makes middling players look good and good players look better.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but occasionally the smoke clears and Dallas is left with just the mirrors – and those mirrors reveal a team with few consistent weapons beyond the Ri-Dirk-ulous one.
But man, is he a threat. He’s still so lethal from both elbows, which makes him great as a pick-and-pop threat or as a weak-side pinch post release valve. There are ways to stop him, but each one comes with a cost. At this point in his career, Dirk Nowitzki has faced all of those gimmicks and has a computerized “if-then” program written for each scenario. Like when the Blazers tried slowing him down by switching active smalls onto him. It… didn’t end well for Portland.
Here is proof, a bunch of buckets where Nowitzki sets a simple screen (or, in the case of the second example, gets some off-ball flex action run for him to flare to the corner and get the switch) in order to get the switch that Portland coach Terry Stotts had apparently called for. Whether it was Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson or Damian Lillard, these all end the same way.
My favorite is the third one, that starts at about the :27 mark. Nowitzki notices in transition that the Blazers got cross-matched in transition and he’s got Lillard and CJ McCollum on his side of the floor, so he calls for the ball. But by the time he’s set up, Mason Plumlee has recognized it and ran over to take him. Dirk turns around, realizes Plumlee’s on him, looks at the clock and seems to say, “Screw it.” He shoots over Plumlee and gets the bucket anyway.
The thing is, this used to be a viable option for slowing Dirk Nowitzki. Clear back to the 2007 playoffs when Golden State upset the Mavs by having Stephen Jackson bother him at the elbows, this has at least been in the book as something you try as a means of slowing him down. And Crabbe is as good a candidate for that role as anybody. He’s a big, strong wing who doesn’t get geeked out about pump-fakes.
But by now Nowitzki has just seen it all, and the counter to each move is a question of muscle memory. Now, as they saying goes, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak; sometimes there’s a big difference between knowing the counter and getting those rickety old bones to respond the way his noggin wants him to. That’s why he doesn’t have 40 every night. But he just expertly responds to every tactic. At the :43 mark, Crabbe tries to apply pressure from the top. Dirk can wrestle with him, but there’s no need to. He simple cuts baseline with Crabbe trailing, so he can set up shop on the opposite block with good position. Catch. Dribble, dribble. Fade. Shoot. Bang.
Bring a second defender to help on those mouse-in-the-house post-ups and the guy’s size allows him to survey and find the teammate left lonely by a defense’s wandering eyes. He’s averaging 2.3 assists over this eight-game stretch, including four against the Blazers.
But Mr. Midrange isn’t just limited to 18 feet and in. The Mavs will just throw him in horns and have the other big roll while Dirk fades back to the three point line. Or, at they did in OT on Sunday, they’ll just run a simple 1-4 pick-and-pop that sets up looks the German has made a living off of hitting.
However, there’s a problem facing Dallas with now a dozen games left: as brilliant as Nowitzki has been, they’ve still lost seven of nine. To survive a close one with Portland at home, it took a once-in-a-blue-moon explosion from a guy who’s been around since the Dead Sea was just a little under the weather. Assuming Dirk can’t do 40 every night, how do they rack up enough wins when eight of their final 12 are on the road, and their home games include Houston and San Antonio?
They might have stumbled across one potential answer on Sunday, almost by accident, when Zaza Pachulia’s struggles brought Tunisian rookie Salah Mejri into action. The 7-foot-1 paint protector had seen action in just 23 games before Carlisle subbed out Zaza after five scoreless minutes.
Mejri is still extremely limited on offense, but was opportunistic enough to come up with 13 points and four buckets: a couple of transition buckets, a putback, and a nice reverse dunk off a backdoor cut. But that wasn’t where he had the most impact. He reeled in 14 rebounds and blocked six shots, and his defensive impact was even bigger than that. His presence as a last line of defense allowed Nowitzki to avoid getting too strung out on pick-and-roll shows, where he’s a little exposed anyway. We saw in 2011 how much it helps Nowitzki to play with a bona fide rim protector, as that’s less energy he has to throw at vain chasedowns from the top.
Mejri was good enough that Zaza never made his way back into the game. The Tunisian started the second half in Pachulia’s place and also played all of overtime. The Mavs’ net rating was +46.5 in Mejri’s 33 minutes, and Portland shot just 1-for-10 at the rim when he was around.
But outlier games from a seldom-used rookie aren’t something you want to bank on any more than 40-point outbursts by a 37-year-old. The Mavs are going to need far more consistent play from top to bottom to get into the playoffs against long odds.
Fivethirtyeight.com has them favored in just four of those 12 games, which would put them at 39-43. That probably won’t get it done. They need to steal a game or two along the way but it’s unclear where; their average opponent strength (.539) is considerably harder than Portland’s, Houston’s and Utah’s (range from .483 to .500).
One thing they have going for them: they still play each of those teams once, as well as Memphis, whose M*A*S*H unit is holding onto fifth against all logic. Games against those four essentially give the Mavs a little control over the race, provided they have enough steam to win. The remaining Portland game and the remaining Jazz game are road outings for Dallas.
The other thing they have going for them: Vintage Dirk is on the case. We probably won’t see many more nights out of the league’s sixth all-time leading scorer, but if he plays like he has over the last two weeks, he’ll give the Mavs chances to win games.